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I think, therefore I am? – lecture by Jon Riding

Insight Lecture 9th Oct 2017

Jon Riding.

Good evening ladies and gentlemen. This evening I am going to give you a glimpse of a new world. It is a world in which there is scope for much relief of human suffering and where more of humanity might see hopes and dreams fulfilled. But it is equally a world which might easily become a dystopian nightmare. It is a world in which humankind are no longer the only intelligent beings and the good news is that it isn’t real, at least not yet. But the possibility that it might come to be is stronger than many of us might imagine. Indeed, some would say it is already creeping up on us unawares.

Human beings are, so far as we are able to reliably assess, unique. We are by no means unique in our vitality; we are part of a world full of countless living species, but even amongst those we think of as ‘higher’ animals, such as our close relatives the great apes, and perhaps dolphins and whales, humankind seems to be the only species on the planet that has developed the capacity for rational thought. How we have done this remains a mystery. We can point to physiological developments, which allowed us to grow brains with the capacity for reason and language (these two things seem to be very closely linked) and social developments which provided the environment for these attributes to flourish, but quite how this has all come together to make us what we are remains unclear.

This very uniqueness has contributed to human beings seeing themselves as occupying a privileged place within the natural world. We may not be the strongest or fastest (at least individually) but collectively we are very definitely ‘top dog’ and the world is indeed our oyster.

This idea of our place in the world is reflected in Christian understandings of what it means to be human, where mankind is sometimes seen as the pinnacle of creation and given dominion over all the other creatures. Whether or not we are comfortable with such a view the fact remains that it is this kind of thinking that has helped to shape how we imagine our place in the world.

The title of this talk is a well known quotation from the work of the French philosopher René Déscartes. Déscartes held that human beings were set apart from animals by virtue of possessing reason or intelligence and championed the idea that as human beings we have free will within the created order. These ideas have been a great comfort to humankind over the centuries. Our sense of who and what we are is very much founded upon being intelligent and reasoning beings who are able by virtue of these capacities to exercise freewill in the choices we make.

We have used this reason and freewill to very good effect, at least for ourselves. We have learnt how to harness the world around us to serve us. We have taken wild grains from the field and over millennia have learnt to adapt those grains to increase their yield. We have domesticated wild animals turning wolves into companionable dogs and wild cattle into cows  with higher milk yields and so forth. We exploit the resources of our world to our benefit  and, generally speaking, we don’t worry too much about the outcomes.  And all of this is possible because of who we are, reasoning beings with the free will to transform the world around us.

Unfortunately, This comfortable scenario is beginning to come under threat.  In a world where machines are learning to drive cars, diagnose skin cancers more accurately than skilled oncologists and even translate from one human language to another it is beginning to look as though there may soon be more than one kind of ‘thinking being’ in the world. But is that really the case? What is it that might qualify a system like one of these as ‘intelligent’?

One of the nice things about living in the lovely town of Sherborne is that you never quite know what you might discover about the place and what unexpected connections that might make. And it happens that Sherborne has a particular connection with this talk tonight.

Some of you will, no doubt, have seen the film ‘The Imitation Game’, in part recorded here in Sherborne, which told the story of Alan Turing’s contribution to breaking the Enigma Codes at Bletchley Park during the second world war. The film’s title was taken from a paper written by Alan Turing in 1950 which opens with the words: “I propose to consider the question, ‘Can machines think’”? He then went on to describe what has become known as the Turing Test although in the paper Turing called it The Imitation Game. The game Turing proposed was to provide a computer with the means to communicate with a person. Turing imagined this might be done using a teletype machine which the human would use to type questions or statements for the computer and via which the computer might print its responses. If it proved difficult or impossible for the human to be sure that the replies appearing on the teleprinter were being generated by a computer, and not by another person in a different room, one might conclude that for all practical purposes the machine was ‘thinking’. Recognising that ‘thinking’ is difficult to define, Turing chose to recast his question with another: “Can we imagine a computer which would do well in the imitation game?”

The Turing Test is a neat way of addressing the question ‘can machines think’? It levels the playing field by providing both parties with the same means of communication – the teleprinter – and it also focusses on a key measure for the demonstration of intelligence – language.

Language is central to learning and reason. It is primarily by language that we communicate each day, express our thoughts, share our discoveries and learn from the wisdom of others. Amongst those engaged in research into artificial intelligences (or AI) the task of understanding and translating human language is considered to be one of a small group of problems known as “AI complete” problems. By this they mean that a comprehensive artificial solution to understanding natural language would need to be as intelligent as a human being.

Interestingly, machines have begun to make significant inroads not only into our day to day lives but also into our conversation. The fact that our smart phones include voice responsive digital assistants such as Siri and Cortana shows us how far we have come from Turing’s teleprinter and demonstrates how accustomed we are to rely on the knowledge provided by machines in our daily lives. Some of you may be familiar with Skype, Microsoft’s video calling system. But did you know that Skype can now translate conversations in real time when the participants do not share a language? But are these systems really intelligent? Anyone who has wrestled with the likes of Siri or Cortana can testify to how well they are able to understand spoken questions and how helpful their answers are but whether what they do can be described as thinking is a different question.

Some thirty years after Turing proposed his famous test the philosopher John Searle wrote a paper entitled Minds, Brains and Programs. In this paper he proposed an experiment which has become known as The Chinese Room. It begins with a premise:

Suppose that Artificial Intelligence research has succeeded in constructing a computer that behaves as if it understands Chinese. The computer takes Chinese characters as input and, by following the instructions of a computer program, produces other Chinese characters, which it presents as output. Suppose, says Searle, that this computer performs its task so convincingly that it comfortably passes the Turing test: it convinces a human Chinese speaker that the program is itself a live Chinese speaker. To all of the questions that the person asks, it makes appropriate responses, such that any Chinese speaker would be convinced that they are engaging with another Chinese-speaking human being.

The question Searle asks is: does the machine literally “understand” Chinese? Or is it merely simulating the ability to understand Chinese?

Suppose you or I are placed in a closed room and given a book in which the same computer program is written out (in English) as a set of instructions. We have paper, pencils, rubbers, and filing cabinets full of information about Chinese. We could receive Chinese characters through a slot in the door, and by following the program’s instructions, produce Chinese characters in response. If the computer had passed the Turing test this way, it follows, says Searle, that you or I would do so as well, simply by slavishly following the instructions and without having the least idea about what the messages going back and forth might mean.

Searle suggests that there is no essential difference between the roles of the computer and the role played by you or me in the experiment. Each simply follows a program, step-by-step, producing an output. And it is this behaviour which is then interpreted as demonstrating intelligent conversation. We, however, would not have understood the conversation (unless we happen to speak Chinese). Therefore, Searle argued, it follows that the computer would not be able to understand the conversation either and that, without “understanding” (or “intentionality”), we cannot describe what the machine is doing as “thinking” and, since it does not think, it does not have a “mind” in anything like the normal sense of the word.

This is a helpful observation because highlights an important distinction. The term Artificial Intelligence is often used quite loosely. Many so called ‘AI’ systems are really ‘expert systems’. In this context the machine is given a lot of information which it searches to generate an answer to a question. We might say that the machine knows all the answers. This isn’t really any different from an ordinary computer program. The machine is given a set of information and instructions as to how to use that information to answer questions about it or to transform it in some way. True AI is different. For a system to be truly ‘intelligent’ it needs to be able to learn from the world around it. That world may be limited to a set of example questions and answers but the important distinction is that the machine is not told how to generate an answer to a given question. Instead it is given a series of questions, and the answers to those questions. From these pairs of questions and answers it learns how to answer other similar questions. This isn’t so much an expert system as a learning machine.

Now this may sound pretty esoteric but systems like this are a lot more more common than you might imagine and can be found in some unexpected places. Some of you will already know that my day job for much of the last thirty years has been working with the Bible Societies supporting global Bible translation. When people ask me what my role is I usually say that I am a translation consultant. This is perfectly true as far as it goes, I spend a lot of time consulting with translation teams all over the world about their translations, and very fascinating it is too. But a better description of my work would be that I build learning machines. The task of the team I lead is to develop computer systems which can do helpful things for Bible translators. And when I say Bible translators I mean all Bible translators, working in any one of the 7,000 active languages in the world. To do this by supplying detailed information about each language is impractical. In most cases the information simply doesn’t exist in a form we could use. Our focus is on building systems that, given examples of the text of a language can, for themselves, learn about that language and, and as they do so, then apply that knowledge to assist the translator. In other words, these are systems which learn from their environment.

This is the same kind of technology which drives self-driving cars  and, increasingly, things like Google’s language translation systems and IBM Watson’s cancer diagnosis system to mention just a few. Such a system is not programmed as such but is instead given the ability to learn from the world around it. The question arises, how similar is this kind of thing to human learning? The honest answer to this is that we still don’t really know but there are some interesting indications that human beings and state of the art AI may share some cognitive similarities.

Advances in neuro-science, particularly non-invasive scanning of the brain, seem to suggest that there are relatively few fundamental processes involved in cognition. It seems increasingly likely our ability to think is founded upon a relatively simple mechanism. Our brains seem to be organised into billions of stacks of neurons each designed to recognise a particular thing. So, for example, when our brains see the letter [“A”] the business of recognising it involves neuron stacks that recognise the stroke of an edge, [ | ] and more stacks that recognise a rotation where | becomes [ / \ or – ] . More stacks recognise that / \ and – have appeared in a particular relationship to one another and we conclude that we are looking at a letter [ A ]. In the human being this process is massively parallel and also hierarchical. The stacks that recognise rotation or particular coincidence of strokes can only operate once the stroke has been recognised. These synergies are honed/trained over many years of life experiences.

Systems like Apple’s Siri work in a similar fashion. The process that learns to recognise a particular thing imitates the neuron stacks in the human brain. For the human being this learning takes place over many years and is continually tuned and reinforced by the experiences of day to day living. In the machine the life experience of the human being is typically mimicked by using a huge number of examples to train the machine for its task. In other words, both learn from experience and both are shaped by the realities they encounter. The difference is that the human being learns by encounter and relationships over time (perhaps a lifetime) whereas the machine learns from whatever data it is presented with or can find. The similarity is that, within the field for which a machine is trained, it can be pretty hard to tell the difference between the machine’s behaviour and a human being’s behaviour.

So where does this leave us with respect to where we began, Descartes’s maxim “I think, therefore I am”? It seems that machines that can fool human beings into believing they are interacting with another human being may well qualify as ‘thinking’ machines, particularly if they are able to learn from their ongoing experience and adjust their behaviour accordingly. (Have you ever used a ‘chat’ window on a website to talk to customer services? If so, there’s an increasing chance you won’t be talking to a person).

But this leaves us with the other half of Descartes’s maxim, “I think, therefore I am”.

Machines may be well on the way to passing the Turing test but the ability to think or reason is only part of what it means to be human. The real fundamental is having a sense of self. A human mind is embodied and ultimately, mortal. Everything we experience and learn from, as human beings, is encountered through our bodily senses and this contributes to our sense of self. It is as though we know who we are because we know what that feels like.

For many the work we do is a strong defining characteristic. Our sense of belonging to the wider community also gives us an idea of our place in the world and the ethics and morality we share within that community all contribute to a sense of self as expressed in these shared values. This sense of the collective encourages us to strive towards virtue and shun depravity. And, broadly speaking, we define virtue as that which supports the common good for all – there are always exceptions; did anyone see that film? Hot Fuzz? Sometimes community expressed as common good can develop a life of its own…

At the heart of community is the understanding that we are in relationship one to another and beyond that to the wider world and, some of us would contend, to our creator. These relationships not only help to define who we are but also who, or perhaps what, we are not. This can be a complex and sometimes conflicting web of connections. The liberal values extolled by Theo Hobson here recently as the basis for our shared humanity are very much part of who we are as 21st century Europeans. One of their cardinal values is individual choice and freedom. But even this post-modern mantra of the individual as paramount only succeeds through the collective assent of society. There have been other collective philosophies which have been less beneficial.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer was faced with the choice of expressing who he believed himself to be, either as a citizen of Nazi Germany with all that implied, or as a servant of the Living God. To be the former might have enabled him to survive but he concluded it was not who he was and paid for it with his life.

The bottom line is that who we are is very much dependent upon our relationships with others, human or divine. If we value our fellow human beings such that we are always seeking what contributes to their flourishing then we can hope that they might respond in kind. Those of us that call ourselves Christian have an ultimate example of this in the relationship between God and human beings modelled by the life and work of Christ which shows us a relationship built on unconditional and transformative love.

If it seems intuitive that much of human identity is shaped by our abilities, experiences and relationships, why should the same not be true for an intelligent machine? As for abilities, the AI will think much faster than a person and may well have access to vast amounts of information which, unlike a human, it won’t forget. We might wonder where and with whom such a machine might build relationships and how those dependencies might shape the kind of being it could become and we might encounter? What it may not have is the knowledge of joy, love, pain, and suffering, to name just a few of the things that contribute to making us human. Even if it could understand these for itself how will it recognise them in others and learn to empathise and sympathise? And I wonder, what difference would that make? The people we are and the relationships we have, locate us in human society and place responsibilities on us to behave as society expects and we experience that in the nature and character of those with whom we form relationships. How will that work for an AI?

Let’s look at a real example of where this might take us. An experiment was carried out recently using a self-driving car. It explored a scenario which has long been imagined by ethicists but never actually tested. The car was instructed to drive along a test track the width of a typical two lane single carriageway road. Partway along the track a van was encountered coming the other way. No problem, there are two lanes, the van occupies only one so there is space to pass safely. At the last moment a motorbike pulls out from behind the lorry into the centre of the opposing lane directly in front of the car. The car first dodged towards the centre of the road looking for a gap between the two and then pulled back into its own lane driving head on into the motorbike and leaving the van to pass without collision. (I should reassure you that both the van and the bike were controlled remotely).

Now here’s the rub. Nobody knows, including the engineers that designed the AI that controlled the car, how it took that decision. Whilst it has some basic parameters that govern its behaviour it is continually learning from the situations it encounters each day on the road. We can speculate that faced with a choice of two bad options it took the one that would cause least damage to the occupants of the car. Such a constraint would be sensible in principle for a driving system; but how would that play out when the softer target, is a mother pushing a double buggy containing two small children? In the end, it is the nature of the AI system that will determine how those calls are made. (This is not a new ethical dilemma of course, it has long been known as the “Trolley problem” in which a runaway tramcar can only be directed down one of two tracks both of which involve human casualties). What is different is who (or perhaps, what) is making the decision and the choice made will, in the end, be governed by the kind of person, or intelligence, they are.

The last few years have seen great strides forward in our ability to build learning machines. Whilst we are (probably) not close to creating a truly human intelligence at present a recent survey of academics working in the field of AI research found that the average of all their predictions for the date by which a human level AI might appear was 2045. That’s not that far away and the clock is ticking. There are people in this room who can expect to be alive then should this happen.

We should also ask from where such an AI system might emerge? Whilst the expectation is that the likes of Google, Facebook or national governments are the front runners, this is the kind of thing that might emerge from a garage somewhere. My own team, building limited learning machines for linguistic analysis is based in two studies in southern England. You don’t need a lot of infrastructure to do this kind of research and it is now possible to buy computing power on an ad hoc basis on the net very cheaply. Nevertheless, with companies such as Microsoft, Google, Apple, Facebook et al. investing heavily in AI research it seems most likely that it is from a company like them, that a feasible AI may appear. Of course, we have no idea what governments are doing but we might ask what global companies and national governments might have to gain from such technologies.

A cancer diagnosing machine that out performs the best human diagnosis is clearly a good thing. Coupled with this is the reality that once such capabilities exist they will be a lot less expensive than training a human doctor to a similar level. This means we can offer treatment at lower cost and this is also a good thing except that we need to ask where the resources saved might go. Can we expect to see them redeployed in the service of human flourishing or will they simply turn into increased profits for share holders? Then again, Machines may be good at some cancer diagnoses but how comfortable would you be if the financial decisions which determined what treatment might be available for you were taken by machines? I suppose there would at least be a measure of consistency…

What about autonomous vehicles? These are already on the road in the US and it won’t be long before they appear on the motorways of Europe. If a machine can drive a long-distance lorry safely (and without the need for rest breaks) why not let it do the job? It is likely that the excellent safety records shown by trials will translate into fewer collisions. Again, a good thing, but what will that do to the insurance premiums of those of us that prefer to drive ourselves and, more importantly, what about the people who currently drive the trucks? There are about 350,000 long distance lorry drivers in the US alone. That’s a lot of people to put out of a job. And don’t forget the taxi drivers.  Uber is now trialling autonomous minicabs.

We have become accustomed to seeing blue collar workers put out of work by more efficient machines on assembly lines. But why bother with human managers in the financial sector and perhaps other industries? The machines can do it better. It might not be just truck drivers and welders who find themselves out of a job. What safeguards will we put in place to protect society from this kind of pressure? Of the 35 member countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation & Development (OECD – typically high income economies) it is estimated that 57% of all jobs are at risk of being given to machines. For the UK the proportion is 35%, for China 77% and for Ethiopia 88%.

Then there’s the military. Will we ever be content to allow a machine to decide when to launch a strike that may injure or kill human beings? Most people will say no but in environments where the speed of reaction may mean winning or losing an engagement there is huge pressure to take the advantage offered by autonomic systems. Even if we decide to outlaw this kind of thing, how do we know other countries will follow suit?

For some, and despite these concerns, the advent of a world served by artificial intelligence is something to look forward to. Supporters, who include Mark Zuckenberg of Facebook and Ray Kurweil who designed Siri, point to all the scientific and medical advances that might be accelerated if they were driven by a human level intelligence or perhaps even a super human intelligence working at the speed of a computer. They speculate that human beings will live longer, have more leisure time and that life will improve for all. Some imagine ‘uploading’ a human mind into a virtual container on line where the limits of biology can be transcended by computation. Amongst the AI research community, who are typically atheistic and unaware of the unconscious social and racial bias in many of their algorithms, the attitude is: “you don’t need faith, we can show you how it works”. The language they use to describe their hopes, however, has strong echoes of theology. The old spirit/body duality favoured by the Gnostics is present in many of their proposals, so much so that some commentators have spoken of a coming “Rapture of the Nerds”.

Others, including Nick Bostrom, Professor of Philosophy at Oxford University and Director of the Future Artificial Intelligence Research Centre, the author Yuval Harari and Elon Musk the founder of the Tesla electric vehicle company, fear we are sleep-walking into dystopia. What, they ask, would a human level AI be like? How would it reach its decisions? Who will benefit? All of humankind or perhaps just a few? Crucially, what would an AI’s goals be? This last question is particularly interesting.

Part of being human is that our humanity shapes and limits the goals we set out to achieve. But what will shape the goals for an AI? In the first instance human engineers would, no doubt, provide goals as part of the parameters for the machine as a whole. But if we are speaking of an AI, designed by human beings, with near human level intelligence, and the speed of thought of a computer, it wouldn’t be long before that AI redesigns itself in order to perform better. And having done so, why stop at doing this only once? Given continual improvements it is likely the rate of improvement will increase exponentially. Since we are speaking of virtual machines which exist as programs running on computers somewhere on the Cloud it would be a trivium for such a machine to clone better versions of itself. Each new version will be smarter than the old and will be able to design further improvements to itself. All of which will make it better able to achieve its goals. You see the problem. No matter how we have set the goals when the AI is first built, it has not only the ability, but a strong incentive, to reinvent itself in the pursuit of those goals. This could lead to some unexpected outcomes…

One way to imagine this kind of scenario is what is sometimes called The Paperclip Problem. Suppose we as humanity were to decide that the most important thing we need to keep us comfortable into the future is an endless supply of paper-clips. Let’s imagine that we construct an intelligent machine to manage the production of paperclips for us and we give the machine full control of the process. The machine, being a bright bunny – perhaps as a result of reinventing itself – soon realises that the more resources it has, the more paperclips it can make. At first this is limited by the amount of mild steel it is given as raw material, but then one day it realises that if it is able to buy more steel, it can make more paperclips and so be surer of fulfilling its goals. Of course to buy steel it needs money so it will need a connection to somewhere it can make some money. How about the financial markets – ah, yes, they are on line aren’t they… It uses its intelligence to trade and make money to buy more steel. As the supply of steel reaches its limit the solution for the machine is clearly to build more steel works and the ore mines and infra-structure they need will follow. You can probably see where this is going by now. In the end the machine gradually turns its whole world (universe?) into the raw materials for paperclips, thus ensuring humankind will never run out of the them but, possibly, at the expense of converting much of the world into the raw material for page fasteners in the process.

All of which sounds quite ludicrous. The trouble is, it is surprisingly hard to imagine how we might set goals for a machine that might not end up being perverted in this sort of way.

What, then, does all this mean for being human? I think it leaves us with some questions to consider. Many of us are defined by the work we do. As we hand more and more of that work over to machines more and more of us will need new ways to define what we are and how our lives are given value.

Who will really benefit from the improvements in efficiency promised? Are we content to allow global companies to reap profits to the benefit of their share holders or will we force a more equitable distribution of wealth; and if so, how will we enforce that?

If we were to discover one day that we were no longer top dog in the intelligence stakes, what might that mean for the future of humanity? We set much stock by human rights, but I wonder, what rights would we give an intelligent machine? It has to be said that for the period we have been at the top of the pile our track record caring for the rest of creation hasn’t been great and the question arises: from whom do we imagine our near human level AI might learn about how to treat those who aren’t quite as bright as itself? Our own example with the environment generally, and chimpanzees and the like more particularly, might not be the model we would want to encourage.

The way we treat our fellow human beings and the world around us helps define who we are. It can be argued that the way humankind treats the rest of creation not only devastates our world but diminishes us. If those who were created to care for the garden treat the creatures they share it with as no more than resources to be consumed then we become less that we were created to be. And if we discover one day that we are sharing our world with other intelligences we should, perhaps, consider what might be the best policy for negotiating that particular relationship.

As we wonder how to approach that conversation we might also reflect that for Christians, human beings draw their significance from the Incarnation. Rather than asserting with Déscartes, I think, therefore I am, we might do better to remember that: God loves me, therefore I am. That is the narrative that confers personhood on us. And that, if we call ourselves Christians, is the basis for our identity.

The Laws of Robotics (Isaac Asimov)

  • A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

  • A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

  • A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

  • Zeroth law, to precede the others: A robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.


Barrat J (2013), “Our Final Invention” New York, Thomas Dunne Books.*

Bostrom N (2014), “Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies” Oxford, OUP.**

Hawkins J and Blakeslee S (2005), “On Intelligence” New York, Owl Books.***

Kurzweil R (2012), “How to create a mind” New York, Viking Penguin.

Yampolski R (2015), “Artificial Superintelligence: A Futuristic Approach” Boca Raton, London, CRC Press.

* See Barrat for a non-technical discussion of the benefits and dangers of AI.

** See Bostrom for more on the ethical and existential questions posed by AI.

*** See Hawkins for a discussion of the learning functions of brains and machines.

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God Created Humanism: lecture – by Theo Hobson

One of my favourite fairy tales is the Emperor’s New Clothes. The emperor is persuaded that he is wearing some incredible new outfit when actually he is naked. And he parades in front of his people who are too shocked to say anything, and perhaps become involved in the delusion that he is finely attired. And of course there’s just one little boy in the crowd who says the obvious, calls out the fact that he is naked, and breaks the spell.

This story came to mind as I was writing this book – but in reverse as it were. For the first part of my argument is that we do have a positive core belief in our culture – in the West generally – but we tend to speak as if it is not there, or as if it’s too empty to be taken seriously. We often speak as if the emperor is naked – the emperor being our basic shared ideology – but in fact no, he’s wearing something very impressive. And maybe it takes a certain naivety, like that of the boy in the story, to say so.

So my book begins by drawing attention to this – we do believe in something. It’s awkward, a bit embarrassing – but we have a positive ideal in our culture, an ideology that unites us. We must see this afresh, strengthen our appreciation of it.

Of course we all know what it is – humanism, equality, liberal values. It’s hard to avoid using three of four different terms when naming it – and that adds to a sense of vagueness, of incoherence. And when we hear these terms we’re conscious of how they are disputed – for example, there are aspects or interpretations of liberalism that we disagree with – and this is likely to be one of our first reactions on hearing the word.

So what’s the best single term to sum up this creed? Is it liberal democracy? Not quite: that’s a form of politics (and quite complicated to articulate). We need to talk about the worldview, or ideal, that underlies it. It might sound hopelessly naïve or vague or earnest, but it is the belief that all human lives matter, and should flourish, and that part of such flourishing is the freedom to express one’s core beliefs; it of course entails ‘human rights’. I think we must call this ideology ‘secular humanism’ – despite great risk of being misunderstood. It is secular in that it expresses itself in non-religious terms, which doesn’t mean it’s anti-religious, but that it seeks to include those of all faiths and none. This is important to underline because ‘secular humanism’ is often used to mean the rejection of religion: a softer term for atheism.

Maybe it’s best summed up as moral universalism – every human being is theoretically of equal importance, and it is desirable that all human lives should flourish. Yes, it’s very vague – but nevertheless this ideal is a very real force in history. And it’s the core ideology of the West. Yes of course we’re always arguing about what this entails, whether this or that government is serving it – but almost all of us do feel that it is our common creed, that it lies deeper than our political differences.

Why are we so inclined to avoid dwelling on, and affirming, this basic common ideal? Partly because this thing is so amorphous, elusive, unclassifiable. It’s hard to say what sort of thing we’re taking about when we talk about secular humanism. This intersection of politics and morality is awkward. When we say that everyone is equal, is that a statement of fact or a moral aspiration? It must be a moral aspiration, but it’s so built in to the culture that we don’t really link it to personal morality: we are in the habit of seeing secular humanist morality as just normal, the default position of civilized people, not a moral commitment that one has to think about, work at. It’s a sort of morality that is public rather than personal; a morality that society does for us, perhaps, for it is built in to our politics. Is it a form of moral idealism? Yes and no: for it is ordinary, expected of us, and we think of ‘idealism’ as something more than that.

Also there’s a sense that it’s embarrassingly naïve, to focus on this basic common creed. It is too vague to be worth focusing on, say hard-headed people of the world. Leftwingers say it is too vague to inspire the fight for social justice. Rightwingers say it is too vague to weak to deliver meaning, or to underpin deep social bonds.

But there’s another reason it’s so hard to focus on, to celebrate… religion. The divisive, contentious issue of religion gets in the way. For this moral idealism overlaps with religious idealism in a very problematic way. For many people, religion is the real source of this moral vision, and a secular version is suspect. And many atheists say that this moral vision can only be clarified and completed if it is explicitly anti-religious. In other words, the humanist ideal is divided by the question of religion. This is chiefly why secular humanism is so difficult to think about: its relationship to religion is powerfully unclear.

Was it ever thus? Yes and no: this tense relationship was, until rather recently, softened by a liberal religiosity that fused with national identity. In the twentieth century, the big ideological battles did not expose this tension; rather fascism and communism could both be fought by a vague alliance of religion and secular humanism. But the principal ideological enemy of our day, militant Islam, is different. By accusing Western freedom of being godless and selfish it drives a wedge into our creed. It sows opposition between believers and nonbelievers. The former want to say: don’t call us all godless, many of us dissent from secularism; the latter want to say: yes, our creed certainly does reject religion, thank God.

Most Christians are ambivalent about the term ‘secular humanism’ – especially the secular side of it. Yes, they might say, of course we value the largely secular nature of our politics, and the separation of church and state – but our culture has become arrogant in its secularism, in a way that impinges on religious communities, so ‘secular’ is not a term we want to celebrate or affirm – rather it’s something we reluctantly accept as necessary, up to a point.

I suggest Christians should be more upbeat about secular humanism as the common creed of modern society. Otherwise they seem to be nostalgic for a previous order in which religion and politics blurred together, and churches bossed people around and so on.

We must be clear that we basically affirm the huge modern shift whereby Christianity loses its role as the official common creed, and people of other religions or of no religion are seen as fully valid citizens. In other words we should affirm the secular nature of our common social creed, the fact that it makes no reference to God.

Surely the churches have been accepting this shift, you might say. Well, yes and no – in recent decades it’s more common to hear Christian voices grumbling about it, implying that secular humanism is a dubious thing. This comes in the erudite form of postmodern theology, and in more populist forms. As they become more marginal, Christians want to heighten their distinctiveness, and that largely means kicking against liberal assumptions. That’s a wrong move, I suggest – instead we need a new clarity, about how we relate to the world around us.

An example of this wrong move is the way in which Tim Farron resigned. He said – ‘To be a political leader – especially of a progressive, liberal party in 2017 – and to live as a committed Christian, to hold faithfully to the Bible’s teaching, has felt impossible for me.’ There’s a wider implication that really committed Christians will prove it by being at odds with secular humanist values. I don’t deny that such opposition can arise, but the more important thing to show is that Christians affirm the secular nature of public life.

Unless we are clear in this way, then we can’t really articulate who we are – it’s a crucial part of apologetics to say how we relate to the culture around us. We must go back to basics and clarify the positive affinity of Christianity with liberal values or secular humanism.

This is tricky – we have to articulate this affinity with great care – there’s a danger of presenting Christianity and secular humanism as essentially the same thing – of implying that secular humanism is the modern expression of Christianity. This is the mistake that liberal Protestantism made for a very long time – suggesting that rational humanism was the essence of this religion, so it doesn’t matter if the old traditions of faith and ritual fade away. Of course that’s a betrayal of Christianity, to say that it has been superseded by secular humanism.

But we should, I think, say something that might sound similar. We should say something that many Christians will see as a betrayal, a sell-out.

We should affirm secular humanism as the right public ideology. Because it is secular it is more universalist – it can unite all sorts of different people with different beliefs. Its universalism is fuller than that of any religion, in the sense that it can bypass the questionable particularity of religion, and theoretically include everyone irrespective of their belief.

So why not conclude that secular humanism is a superior creed, that we can abandon Christianity? Because on another level it is inadequate, it is limited to the practical public sphere, the surface of life; it has no strong account of life’s meaning and purpose, but gravitates to an evasive shrug. In other words it is also thinner – it cannot say why we should affirm this moral universalism, and it evades the full drama of this moral vision, which is its absolute and perfectionist desire for the good of all humanity – a desire which clashes with the fact of human fallibility.

So it’s a paradox – secular humanism is on one hand superior to Christianity – it is a better public ideology, a fuller universalism. But it is also thinner, or shallower.

So we must take a cunningly ambiguous approach to secular humanism. We must both affirm it as the right public ideology – and criticise it as a limited world view – it can’t tell us why we should seek the good of all humanity – its vision is derivative from something else. In a sense it is a fuller universalism – but it is thinner.

You could say that Christianity and secular humanism are two halves of the same vision, two sides of the same coin. There is both opposition and unity.

I admit this is a strange, paradoxical idea – that Christians should affirm this public ideology that is other than itself, that is secular.

It makes sense because there is a story of one tradition giving rise to another. We need to refer to the history of ideas to give substance to this idea.

We need to insist that the moral universalism of secular humanism chiefly derives from Christianity.

So Christian tradition gives rise to this other tradition, secular humanism – and that is why Christians can affirm it without losing integrity – we should see it as a providential development.

For most of the book I tell the story of how this modern ideal of secular humanism gradually emerges from Christian tradition. Of course that means confronting atheist and agnostic assumptions that secular humanism is not dependent on religion, but emerges naturally or rationally.

To claim that Christianity is the primary source of secular humanism might sound excessive. But where else did secular humanism get its optimistic moral vision, its idea that human beings ought to seek the wellbeing of all other human beings? Is this just the morality that comes naturally to all human societies, the evolved instinct for altruism perhaps? No – that sort of instinctive morality certainly exists, but it is frail, ambiguous: it might come naturally to protect an orphan of one’s own tribe, but it also seems to come naturally to see other tribes as enemies, and to treat their orphans with less care. Maybe a widening of morality comes with the development of rationality? But the morality of the brainy ancient Greeks was limited, hemmed in by fatalism, militarism, hierarchy, slavery (their rationality was intrinsically elitist). Yes but modern humanist thinkers overcame such limitations, says the atheist, and discovered the great truth of human equality, of universal rights. OK, so how did that happen? When one bothers looking into the matter, one finds that these humanists were almost all Christians, or semi-Christian believers in a rational God – ‘deists’. Secular humanism very gradually emerged within Christian culture. Which means that the modern humanist principles of liberty and equality are rooted in Christianity. It does not come naturally to us to believe that we can move towards a world of ever-greater justice for all, that all lives are of equal worth, that oppression and discrimination must end. It comes far more naturally to us to see drastic inequality as inevitable, and distant others as inferior.

At one point I discuss the recent atheist writers – I suggest that they refuse to reflect on their own central assumption, the truth of secular humanism. This sort of atheism treats a certain moral agenda as natural, obvious: equality, justice, human rights and so on. It insists that religion is not just false but morally culpable, as it tends to contravene these secular humanist principles.

Where do the atheists suppose that these values come from? Of course they hotly deny that such morality is rooted in religion: how can something good come from something bad? Where then? The dominant answer is that morality is just a natural human thing: the moral faculty is part of what it means to be human. Secular humanism is therefore seen simply as a fully up-to-date expression of natural human morality. To rational agents, it is clear enough how to be good enough.

There are two major problems with this. First, if morality were merely natural, it would be equally present in all human traditions everywhere, in all periods of history. There would perhaps be local variations, but there would surely be no longstanding cultural practices that could be called immoral. Also, it is hard to deny that human moral culture has almost always taken religious form – which makes it a bit absurd to present religion as a force for immorality. In other words, there is a contradiction between calling morality merely natural, and claiming to represent a morally superior tradition that liberates us from the blockage of religion. The atheist wants it both ways: there is no special moral tradition, morality being natural; and yet, the tradition that sees through religion has huge liberating power – in effect it’s our salvation.

It’s fun arguing with the atheists but in a sense my main purpose is to confront the agnostic humanist, who is not anti-religious, but just assumes his world view is safely free of religion.  I want to shake him by the shoulders and say – ‘look at what you believe – look at this limitless idealism – and admit it is not just pragmatic or rational, but there’s a sort of religious vision there under the surface.’ I want to say that secular humanism has an element of dishonesty: it advocates an absolute good, justice for all, but finds it possible to do so on the cheap, without facing the fact that this ideal is indeed absolute, perfectionist. It finds it possible to affirm this ideal in a muted, pragmatic, sceptical way, to believe in the good of all within reason, up to a point that is deemed sensible by the culture of the day. And it assumes that it is normal to espouse this ideal; it is what is expected of all rational civilized people. A huge, culture-sized, convention calls this a coherent enough position. But is it? I suggest that it’s a timid dilution of moral absoluteness, and that the full and direct expression of Christianity is still needed, if one is seriously to affirm the fullest moral universalism, the fullest humanism.

I won’t try to sum up my entire narrative of Christianity giving rise to secular humanism – except in a very sketchy way.

Christianity is distinct from the other monotheisms in rejecting political violence, so the potential is there for the rejection of theocracy, for the separation of church and state. This happens in a gradual way in the medieval period – primarily, the church spreads the idea of the sacred worth of all human lives. Also there are new criticisms of religious authority, new affirmations of the secular realm – eg in humanists like Erasmus. This continues after the Reformation – especially in England and Holland an intense new humanism emerged in the seventeenth century. Some of the pioneers were radically religious – such as the puritans who demanded liberty of religion, and so launched the idea of the separation of church and state, ending the long reign of theocracy. Others were rationalists, but their rationalism was intensely influenced by radical Protestant belief.

The fact is that just about all of the major Enlightenment thinkers, from Spinoza and Locke to Voltaire and Jefferson, and Kant and Hegel, were either Protestants or were decisively influenced by Protestantism. To put it bluntly, the secular humanism that gradually emerged did not come from nowhere. Nothing comes from nothing, as King Lear said. The whole idea of universal human rights came from the rational version of Christianity that was developed chiefly by Protestants.

The actual tradition of practical humanism was chiefly advanced by committed Protestants, from the Quakers who modeled egalitarianism (including for women) to the evangelicals who denounced slavery as a violation of the brotherhood of man, to all the campaigners for better treatment of the poor, and politicians like Gladstone who banged on and on about our universal moral obligations. And in recent times it was still Protestantism that produced the foremost prophet of social justice, Martin Luther King.

Maybe the humanism of secular humanism largely derives from Christianity, some might say, but this is surely not true of the secularism. Well, look again at the history of ideas, especially in the crucial seventeenth century: it was radical Christians who first insisted on freedom of religion, and said that battling theocracy, or the unity of religion and politics, was a sacred cause. These radical Protestants (such as Milton, and other supporters of Cromwell, and also Roger Williams in New England) gradually gave way to a cooler, more rational sort of Protestant reformer, who dominated the eighteenth century, from Locke to Jefferson. It was such liberal Christians (or semi-Christian ‘deists’) who launched the principle of secular politics, not atheists.

In conclusion let me read a passage from the book’s conclusion.

I have tried to expound the paradox: secular humanism cannot be understood in purely secular terms. It is not cleanly post-religious. If we are to affirm this moral tradition, celebrate it, be proud of it, we must acknowledge that our public creed is not simply secular humanism, but Christian-based secular humanism. Only so can we strongly affirm it. We garble and falsify our ideology if we do not acknowledge its religious basis. Only if we acknowledge its debt to religion can we have a sense of this tradition’s groundedness, its depth.

What’s my agenda in putting this case? I suppose it’s two-fold. I want to see a more confident, robust and self-aware secular humanism. Only with a renewed sense of its ideological purpose can the West stand up to threats coming from the Middle East, China, Russia. We must become prouder of our ideology: moral universalism, human rights. And this means becoming proud of the story of this ideology: the story of Christian universalism learning to reject theocracy and express itself in inclusive, even post-religious terms. This story is difficult, paradoxical. (It is with a heavy heart that one dusts down the word ‘dialectical’.) But without this story we do not quite know who we are.

Also, my agenda is ‘apologetical’: by highlighting its influence on our public morality I am trying to persuade people to take this religion a bit more seriously than they are accustomed to. Am I suggesting that, if you like secular humanism ‘you might also like’ its basis, Christianity? Maybe I am.

The reader might reply: hmmm, maybe it’s true that secular humanism has Christian roots, but so what? Surely I can prefer the fruit of a tree to its roots. And surely post-Christian secular humanism is an improvement on Christianity – for surely it purges the tradition of its irrational and authoritarian elements? Why can’t we have the sensible modern fruit, without the traditional mythology and ritual and so on? Why not just believe in the good of all, in the sacredness of universal human rights? Why not stick with secular humanism? I suppose I want to suggest that there is something small-minded, pinched, intellectually dishonest about sticking with secular humanism. For what do secular humanists actually believe? They believe in the good of all humanity. But only within reason, only in as far as it seems normal. They are always looking over their shoulder, seeing how far such idealism is deemed normal, rational. If one thinks for oneself, one might notice that the good of all humanity is an absolute ideal, a utopian perfectionism; it entails a narrative of paradise regained. Secular humanism wriggles away from this absoluteness, it does not really believe in its own idealism. It turns this ideal into a vague aspiration, most commonly expressed in negative form – in the insistence that certain actions and attitudes are wrong, as they impede the rights of others. But authentic humanism is positive and absolute; its desire for human flourishing is unlimited. Secular humanism lacks a mechanism that fixes it to absoluteness (though the Marxist belief in revolutionary transformation is a stab at this). It is parasitic on the absolutism that it comes from and scorns.

Am I saying that Christians desire the good more completely than secular humanists? Well, that’s a hard thing to measure. But it is surely the case that they see ‘the good’ in more intense, absolute terms, as a call to moral perfection – an impossible demand that one cannot fulfill, but must struggle to. As a demand that exposes one’s inadequacy, one’s inner division between obedience and sin (to slip into religious speech). Christians can face up to the absoluteness of this moral ideal, because they have a story that makes sense of our failure to live up to it. The secular humanist, by contrast, thinks in more realistic terms – of being morally good enough, by affirming the rights of others. Of course no one is perfect, she says, so let’s put aside the unhelpful notion of moral perfection and instead uphold realistic rules of conduct, a moral law – it is enough to be among the morally civilized people, who affirm equality. But this is a brittle, somewhat dishonest position, for all humanism, religious or not, is half-hypocritical. All are equal, we say, but we’d rather hang out with an interesting attractive person than a poor, uneducated, smelly one. In other words, morality entails a tension between idealism and our selfishness, and secular humanism lacks a language for pondering this, and so evades it. We all have a duty to be moral, it says, and it assumes that this civilized moral way is straightforwardly possible. But morality, in this tradition, cannot be confined to such sensible rule-based pragmatism. It is about the perfectionist good of all, and we betray that vision with every self-centred little thought we have.

I am claiming that Christianity is the pure humanism, the ur-humanism. Well, we’d rather have humanism in a more developed, evolved, form, you might say, purged of its irrationality. But that’s a dilution. Full-blooded humanism is absolutist, perfectionist, it needs this mythical and ritual context. It needs to inhabit the paradox that we must exceed our human nature, defy sin, rely on the miracle of God’s grace. It needs these rationally indefensible concepts and phrases, which belong to a ritual tradition. Why? Because otherwise the absoluteness slips away – one moves to a sensible moderate version of humanism, in which this ideal is thought to be normal, our default position. To put it differently, Christianity is a primitive form of humanism. But this primitivity can’t be rationalized, progressed on from. This is primitivity that can’t be improved upon, like dance.

There’s a bit more conclusion – but I’d better leave you wanting more so you buy the book!

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Better Alone? – Frank Field MP

frank_field_0_os2hbzThe Rt Hon Frank Field MP visited Sherborne on Friday 20th May  to speak as part of our series of lectures on the EU Referendum under the title “Better Alone”. Almost 300 filled the centre of the Abbey Nave to hear him speak. As promised he has sent a copy of his notes for the evening.

Frank Field MP:

‘We are debating the destiny of our nation. Do we see our future to lie within the European state? Or do we see our future to lie outside, keeping our friendly relationship with Europe, but being our own governor?

‘This is the great question that we will decide as we go into the polling stations on referendum day. There is no simple factsheet that anyone can provide you on how to make up your mind on this great question.

‘Anybody who feels that, if only they had more information, they would be able to make a resolute and proper decision, fools themselves. Worse still, is those politicians who are campaigning as if they do have that set of facts to set you free.

‘There is no set of facts to set you free as voters. You are already free. As you approach that ballot box in a few Thursdays time, you will be settling how you will cast the destiny of our great nation.

‘There are dangers with a vote to remain or to leave. Don’t let anybody kid you otherwise.

‘To stay in the European Union contains huge risks. We just have to look at how this great venture (because it was a great venture) started back in the 1950s and the shape it has taken since then.

‘The aim was to build in stages a single European state. The aim of that state was to prevent a third world war originating in Europe.

‘NATO has prevented that third world war starting in the heart of Europe yet again. Our peace has nothing whatsoever to do with the European Union.

‘This great venture has therefore become primarily a political adventure. A vote to remain is a vote to take our country firmly and securely into that single state, and, with it, the inevitability of unlimited immigration.

‘That’s one danger.

‘The other danger is associated with voting to leave the European Union. Don’t be beguiled by the slur tactics of how many jobs we will lose, how many firms will disappear, and how many years of pestilence will be inflicted on our country as a result of a vote to leave.

‘No honest person knows. I guesstimate that there is little danger here, but I may be wrong. The danger is of a totally unknown proportion.

‘There is danger associated our withdrawal. The EU is deeply, deeply unpopular with voters across Europe. So the main danger is that our vote to leave will begin a fast unravelling of the European community. Most governments are frightened to give what David Cameron was forced to give us – a vote to you to decide the destiny of your nation.

‘If we vote to leave on Thursday 23rd June, we will light a freedom flame that could spread throughout most of Western Europe.

‘The demand will be for a vote equal to ours.

‘This will be the point of maximum danger and we should not kid ourselves otherwise. We must therefore be prepared for day two of the post-referendum world.

‘Whatever the result, the Prime Minister will soon have to go, given his mishandling of this whole event.

‘If the Conservative Government wins, then it will need to re-form quickly. It is crucial that a government representing the wide interests that have only been apparent for a decade or more amongst the Tory Party rank and file, and, since 2010, its MPs in Parliament. This pro-Britain view must be properly represented in that new government.

‘The new prime minister will need to set up, separately, a negotiating team. This team needs to draw on the wide range of talents on the Tory side, but also across the House of Commons and beyond. We must draw on the cleverest Europhiles, such as Dominic Grieve, whose beliefs on the EU are different from mine. We need the very best team possible to renegotiate our relationship with the EU.

‘I summarise: If the vote is to leave, then, likewise, a new government must be formed that has the confidence of the House of Commons. That government will be Tory-dominated.

‘Likewise, the new government will need to set out, separately, a negotiating team. That needs to have the very best brains on it, of those who opposed leaving as well as those who campaign to leave.

‘It is crucial that on the day after the referendum, and as soon as a new prime minister is established, that person tells Europe that we are beginning our negotiations from a status quo.

‘We will not wish to move everything at once. We wish to move slowly, carefully, subject by subject.

‘Our aim will be to ensure the wellbeing of the EU and to deliver a package which the British electorate will have voted for.

‘There are bound to be frayed tempers both in this country and in Europe. A first task of our new prime minister will be to stir up apathy. It is crucial that nothing is done quickly or without the most careful thought of its repercussions. It is crucial, also, that the negotiating team are as open as they can be, both with the electorate in this country over the long-term objectives of the negotiations, but likewise engaging with our partners in Europe, on how best we can fulfil the mandate of withdrawal in a way which strengthens Europe in the longer run.’


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Faith in the Future of the EU

BenRyanBen Ryan (Theos Think Tank) at Sherborne Insight on Monday 25th April 2016

The first of three lectures on Europe and the impending referendum. To be followed by:


Well thank you for inviting me here today, I am delighted to be kicking off this Sherborne Insight series which is obviously timely, with the referendum approaching, but I think is also important on a wider level as we examine the sort of country we want to be and the sort of Europe (not EU but Europe) in which we want to sit.

As you have heard, I am the author of ‘A Soul for the Union’, a new report by Theos (a Christian think tank) that tries to look at the European Union, its history and how it has developed historically. I am not here as a representative of either the Remain or Leave campaigns, but nor, of course, am I a neutral. I have a stance, an opinion on this referendum which you may well detect from what I say, and I wouldn’t want to insult your intelligence by telling you otherwise. What sort of a commentator would I be if I had not arrived at an opinion?

This topic – faith in the future of the EU – is one which you do not need to be told is a very contested space. An awful lot of ink has been spilled and words said about the EU, the UK, whether we’d be better in, out, a bit less in, in but different, and a host of other positions on a broad spectrum.

But while I do have my own stance today, I want to try and do something a bit different and avoid much of what has been before. It is my intent to try and reframe this debate, which to my mind has thus far, on the whole, been intellectually vapid, dishonest and focused almost invariably on the wrong issues. My intent is to try and introduce a new way of thinking about this debate which may lead you to vote in or out – but in a sense it matters more to me that you make that decision for the right reasons, than which conclusion you reach.

To that end: I have a set of basic principles for this evening:

  1. I will make no effort at all to predict the referendum result. I am not a pollster and judging by the recent election I don’t think they’re any good anyway.
  2. I am going to try and avoid the scaremongering that has characterized the debate. You will not hear about migrant camps forming in Kent, or the Scots splitting off, or losing our seat on the UN security council, or of epic job losses, or of Brussels pushing through revenge legislation or any of the other host of fear claims made by both sides of this debate (though one or two of them may be legitimate claims).
  3. I am going to try, as much as possible, to avoid political and sociological jargon – and also cliché. No technocratic waffle about stabilism mechanisms, and no butter lakes.
  4. I am also going to try and stretch the terms of debate significantly beyond that which has dominated thus far, and in particular to try and move beyond the utterly destructive discourse on finance and economics as the be all and end all of the debate – more on that in a moment.
  5. Finally and perhaps more awkwardly I am on the whole going to try and avoid talking about the UK and the referendum.

The reason for that last point is that what I really want to have accomplished here is to broaden the conversation out from the choking and rather tired debates that fill our newspapers, into a more fundamental question about what the EU actually is, what it was designed to be, and what it ought to be. The UK referendum is a side show – an important one, but ultimately the wrong place to look at the future of the EU as a whole. It’s only, I would argue by getting a clearer idea of the EU as a whole that a sensible decision can be made for the UK.

What this organization is will never be defined by the needs and interests of a single member state, it is necessarily broader than that, and the question is as much, in fact more, a philosophical and ethical one than it is an economic or political one. The EU is not about maximising national interest – it is about meeting challenges, and we cannot debate the latter only by talking about the former.

However, I shall dwell very briefly on the debate in the UK because it does set the context for what I’m saying more broadly. Because the debate here in the UK is symptomatic of a wider malaise and a very serious problem.

Out of interest can we do a show of hands, has anyone been onto the website of the official “In Campaign” Britain Stronger in Europe?

If you do so, what is the first thing you see? A video starring the conservative peer, Apprentice TV show star and business woman Karren Brady, who with a bunch of friends from a range of other well-known brands proceeds to drily repeat that the EU is necessary for British jobs, GDP, companies and finances. I’m not going to comment on whether those claims stand up or not – because frankly I think that’s a pathetic argument. Just as I don’t want to comment on whether Nigel Farage is getting his sums right when on the front-page of one of the most prominent “Leave” websites he proclaims that the EU costs the UK £55 million a day.

It is frankly absurd to my mind that this is what the debate has been reduced to. If the best that the In Campaign can muster is a series of economic statements told by wealthy white people to the unenlightened then they might win the referendum, but they will certainly have lost the argument. The EU is not, and never has been, only an economic club, it is about far more than that. It is dishonest to claim otherwise, but more broadly shows a depressing lack of vision for what this truly ambitious international entity is or could be.

This reductionism in the debate down to a baldly economic assessment is crippling to the European project. If the debate in the UK were to be the whole debate for the whole of Europe then the EU would be absolutely doomed.

UKIP and their Eurosceptic fellow travellers have at least got a little more to say – immigration being their big weapon and we might return to that later, while the more intelligent have interesting things to say on sovereignty and democracy. But let there be no doubt that the battlefield on which the UK is fighting out its debate has really been all about the bottom line – money. And let there be no doubt that that is a serious problem.

And for now that’s it – that’s all I really plan on saying on Britain specifically. Instead I want to chart you a very different vision for and of Europe and the EU. This is not particularly difficult, nor does it require a vast imaginative process, instead I simply want to chart the original vision of the European project, prompt some despair by describing how it’s changed, and then attempt to inject a tiny bit of hope at the end.


The European project begins in 1950 with the Schuman Declaration (a speech delivered by French foreign secretary Robert Schuman) that led to the Treaty of Paris and the establishment of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC). It had six members, France, Italy, West Germany, Luxembourg, Belgium and the Netherlands. A few years later, following the Treaty of Rome it developed into the European Economic Community – the EEC, still with the same members but with a much broader remit.

It was never, despite those who will tell you otherwise, a socialist project (Iain Duncan Smith I have noticed has recently been peddling this myth and it’s simply wrong) – in fact Britain did not join precisely because the post-war Labour government saw it as undermining some key socialist principles. The West German socialists resisted the early European project because they saw it as undermining the re-unification of Germany and as innately anti-socialist. The Italians and the West German Christian Democrats, who were in power, were desperately opposed to any hint of a socialist takeover of Western Europe. Given all this, how plausible could it possibly be that the European project was a socialist plan?

It was also never, despite those who will tell you otherwise, an American project. Certainly the Americans were delighted when a solution to reconciling France and Germany was proposed, but it was not their idea, and the historical documents of the time reveal their complete surprise when it is proposed. This was European designed and delivered, the Americans were little more than cheerleaders.

And it was never, despite the current popular myth, simply a free market or a trading body. In fact it is to this day not a “free market” and those claim it is misunderstand what that term means. Konrad Adenauer, the West German Chancellor is among a number of sources who would have told you (as he did in a speech to the Bundestag in 1952) that “the political goal, the political meaning of the European Coal and Steel Community, is infinitely larger than its economic purpose”.

What this project actually was, was the realization of an intellectual and political movement that began back in the 1930s called Christian Democracy. Christian Democrat politicians, almost all of them Catholics and with the fervent support of the Pope, had been meeting throughout the 1930s and 1940s even during the war. They came from all the original 6 member countries plus a few other countries, notably Austria. They discussed a vision for the reconciliation of Europe. The key figures, Robert Schuman (originally from Luxembourg, French Foreign Minister, later French prime minister), Konrad Adenauer (West German Chancellor), Alcide de Gasperi (Italian Prime Minister), Jean Monnet, and others had all known each other for years, the ideas were already in place. And in the early 1950s Christian Democracy dominated European politics in the original 6 member countries. That’s the context. The actual content of the vision is based on 3 main principles:

  1. Solidarity
  2. Subsidiarity
  3. Overarching the other two, that this project would have an explicit moral and religious vision to it.

To briefly examine those 3 themes:

Solidarity meant two things – 1. Peace between nations. It is no accident that the first formalised aspect of the European project was around coal and steel. Without the independent ability to produce those materials it was impossible to militarize. This was made clear at the time – Schuman saying that they were trying to make war between European nations “materially impossible”. For all the talk of NATO and nuclear weapons guaranteeing peace in Europe, this should not be overlooked.

The point was also to go beyond that though. It is not just, as other treaties have been, all about dis-incentivising war as much as actively fostering real solidarity between nations. This is where the economic aspect of the project begins to be seen – it becomes, with the ECSC, significantly more profitable to get on with your neighbours than to be afraid of them. Economics is a tool in the cause of peace and solidarity. And, it is worth noting, no other international treaty or military alliance has ever succeeded in creating that in Western Europe.

The other aspect of economics is the frequently overlooked obsession of the early European project with working and living conditions. Christian Democrats were centre right parties (those that still exist are less so now), but with a very paternalist edge – they were all great exponents of the welfare state. This ties in – Europe was to be founded as a space in which the lives of citizens were meant to get better. By creating a treaty that committed member states to protect workers there was a conscious desire to prevent a race to the bottom. In the eyes of European Project’s creators capitalist states could not be trusted to look after workers. Left to their own devices they would undermine working conditions in favour of the desires of big business and to get a market advantage over other states. By putting working conditions into the economic community rules there was an attempt to prevent this race to the bottom and so to provide a transnational solution to this issue.

Theme 2 – subsidiarity. What is subsidiarity? It is a term consciously taken from a papal encyclical Quadragesimo Anno. At its most basic it is the idea that decisions should be taken at the most appropriate level. So for big problems that can only be solved internationally, you need an international agent. For national issues, a national agent, for local issues a local one. But in all cases it is meant to be taken at the level closest as possible to the individual citizen. Often overlooked in this was a desire to protect the local from the industrializing state.

The much-maligned CAP policy that provides subsidies to farmers was designed originally to protect rural communities. The 1950s was seeing significant movement of peoples into cities from the countryside and there was a concern that communities and families were being destroyed. By providing subsidies, the hope was that they might be better protected. Now again, as to how well subsidiarity has worked subsequently we’ll return to that.

Finally – an overarching moral and religious vision. This is to reiterate that this whole endeavour is not and was not ever intended to be anything other than a moral project with the aim of creating a better global system of government. The political goal was to create a morally based project that would provide transnational solutions to issues that states had proven unable to solve individually.

Scott Thomas, an international relations expert, has called the entire enterprise an act of “theopolitical imagination”. That is the vision of Europe’s foundation.

So the question is what has happened to it? How did we get from there to here? Because we have certainly moved and on a number of those notes I think the EU has demonstrably either failed or at least fallen short of expectations.


Now to be clear we would expect any organization celebrating 65 years of life to have changed. Afterall the world of 1950 looks very different in some respects from the world of 2016. We do not have for example 6 members any more – we have 28. Of those members we have gone from a context in which Catholicism or at least Christianity was in a position of absolutely undisputable social dominance to one which is broadly secular. We may, in Turkey, Albania, Bosnia or Kosovo before long get our first Islamic majority state member. Even of Christian majority countries there is a significant theological and political gap between for example the Polish Catholic church of today and the Belgian Church of 1950.

History and commonality has changed drastically too. In 1950 those 6 states had an identical recent history and similar political system. Today that is not the case. 11 and a half (Germany is the half) of current members are 1 generation removed from communism. 2 (Spain and Portugal) are two generations out of authoritarian dictatorship. 1 (Cyprus) is divided in half.

Change is inevitable, it does not mean it has necessarily been accomplished well.

In practice the guiding principles on which I have proposed that this project were founded have in many cases been muted or declined.

On peace – though we must recognise the astonishing achievement of keeping peace within the EU’s borders, and I simply don’t buy the line that it’s all down to NATO – European history has demonstrated that strong military alliances do little in practice to deter war. The role of the EU in Northern Ireland has also been important – yet despite these achievements as an advocate for peace the EU in the past 25 years has had a string of failures.

In Bosnia the EU (then still the EEC) made the dreadful mistake of listening to the advice of the then British Foreign Secretary Malcom Rifkind. Rifkind urged his European colleagues not to intervene, despite Margaret Thatcher from the backbenches condemning it as “accessory to a massacre”. She was right, Europe failed.

Kosovo once again was a failure to intervene as a force for peace within Europe’s own sphere of influence, Tony Blair as a result attempted to get going a European foreign policy and even intervention force, ultimately he failed to do so (not helped by lukewarm reaction from his own party – particularly one Jeremy Corbyn).

More recently Ukraine is seeing the same scenario unfold. In North Africa the EU has outsourced its commitment to peace by throwing money at the African Union. These troops tend to be badly equipped, badly led and have a poor track record in de-escalating conflicts, purely economically it would also be cheaper to use European troops than to constantly fund failure. These are failures in the moral vision to protect peace.

Working and living conditions. A great success – Europe has seen conditions increase over the past 50 years like never before in human history. This has been underpinned by the charter of fundamental rights attached to the 2009 Lisbon Treaty.

But, as a concern that seems to have taken at best a secondary consideration in the past 7 years since the Eurozone crisis began. In Greece enforced austerity measures now see 45% of Greek pensioners below the poverty line. Greece was a mess – but is the solution the right one when in the short- to medium-term it completely compromises working and living conditions – a founding pillar of the European project? I would suggest not. For Greece, you could also read Spain and its youth unemployment, or Malta, or Cyrpus, or Portugal, or Italy.

On the subject of solidarity – the migrant crisis is a catastrophe; in itself, but also in the response. It is ludicrous and it is irresponsible in security terms that the entire burden for policing and processing asylum claims in the Mediterranean has fallen on those countries least able to pay for it. Greece cannot sustain at present a stable civil service yet is expected to manage tens of thousands of arrivals from the Mediterranean. The inevitable result? Worthy claims are dismissed. Others are waved through without the proper checks and balances. This is an affront to justice – it is also innately dangerous given the terrorist activities of the Islamic State.

It is an affront to justice that a failure of European countries to properly co-ordinate their naval and maritime power – and the UK is especially culpable in this – means that in the Mediterranean there is no EU search and rescue service worthy of the name. It is possible to get a $50 ferry from Syria or North Africa to Europe that is perfectly safe. The lunacy is that refugees cannot take that ferry because you can only apply for asylum when you reach Europe and until you claim it you are an illegal and so unable to take the ferry. As a result they pay thousands of dollars to tricksters and pirates who put them in dangerous un-crewed boats. This is why we see such a scale of death, and it could be significantly ameliorated, very easily indeed, with a proper search and rescue service and a reform of asylum policy to allow applications from abroad.

What about subsidiarity? Here too there are failures. With each treaty change we get new powers for the parliament but no noticeable improvement in democracy and far too much tinkering that should never be done at the European level. We are now living in what the philosopher Jurgen Habermas calls a “technocratic hegemony” – again it is a failure of the original vision.


But underpinning all of this – the real change that is acting like a cancer at the heart of the EU, and has been constantly manifested in the debates here in the UK – is a new economic orthodoxy. This orthodoxy is completely self-destructive for any political entity.

This liberalism or neoliberalism or market fundamentalism – depending on the particular jargon you prefer, I tried to avoid it but it is difficult! – has reduced Europe (not only the EU but national European governments across the continent) to an obsession with GDP, with propping up the Euro and with reducing sovereign debt. All other concerns have been increasingly kicked to the curb. Greece, Spain, Cyprus etc. There were other solutions. We could have pursued other ways of mitigating the disaster in those countries which were rejected. They were rejected because they would have been a less instantaneous salve to the market, though in the long-term they would have successfully met the same ends while protecting solidarity.

The fact that Greece was almost forced from Europe because of an economic dispute is appalling. This was a project that was meant to invite people in and ever grow, not kick them out to meet the needs of sovereign debt.

The damage of this move is enormous. For the first time in 65 years more Europeans distrust European institutions than trust them, not news in Britain – huge in the Balkans. Resentment of European policy, and particularly of Germany, is growing across the continent. And it should be – when it comes to the Euro a MckInsey calculation shows that of all the economic benefits derived from the new currency across the Eurozone 50% have gone to Germany, the rest almost entirely to Austria, the Netherlands and Finland. Most others break roughly even, but Spain, Portugal, Italy and Greece are actually worse off. No wonder there is resentment when Germany then imposes austerity politics to those same countries.


Now I’m going to pause for a moment in case I am being misunderstood here as some sort of Alexis Tsiparis type neo-Marxist. I am not. Let me clarify, it is absolutely essential that the EU has an economic element to it, it is crucial that as far as possible it makes things better economically for its members; the market is a crucial part of that. This is not a proposal for some sort of cloud cuckoo land utopia free from the evils of money.

It only becomes problematic to have an economic focus if that focus exceeds its remit and begins to negatively impact upon other aspects of the purpose of the EU – of which I would argue these moral criteria are critical. We should never disparage economic success or deny that that is a factor in why nation states ought to value the Union. But just as in its origins economics was a tool in a greater purpose – so it should be now. The order of priorities is what has gone wrong.


In fact this is part of a bigger point. Political bodies – of whatever sort and size – cannot rely for their whole purpose and popularity on economics. Or to be more accurate, they can, but only so long as the boom times continue. If your entire case for existence is that you make people richer then that is fine so long as it is true. However, we live now in a global economy where frankly almost regardless of what the UK or EU do they will be subject to ups and downs – economics is variable. At the moment it is a tough sell to a Greek pensioner or a Spanish teenager that the EU is making them richer.

So for this union to be truly sustainable – for anyone to have any faith in the future of the EU – it needs to be based on more than that. It needs a soul – something fundamental that can be clung to and respected, perhaps even loved, in the bad economic times as well as the good. For the EU to have a strong future it needs, therefore, to own its own origins, to own its status as a moral project shaping the world.

I saw a good quote from the French writer Andre Gide “it is better to be hated for what you are than loved for what you are not”. I think that is true, and the EU is failing that test. It has tried to be loved, or at least consented to, as an economic silver bullet. It was a moral project and it has the hope of being so still.

The good news for Europe is that those original principles never went away – in fact they are enshrined in the various treaties. There have been successes, great ones, and many of them. If you are going to have faith in the future of the EU you must commit to that moral mission – the soul of the European project, it’s fundamental essence and purpose. Then you might just have something worth saving.

Not least when the need for transnational solutions in today’s world is increasing, not decreasing. The environment, Islamic extremism, Putin, increasingly economics (the recent crash has shown how important common approaches on taxation, money laundering, banking regulation etc. are – we cannot afford to let one rogue state’s financial sector spark off a worldwide crisis).

All these issues and more require common solutions. It is possible to form collective agreements on each issue, but if you are a Brexiteer you should not kid yourself that that will be easy, or that it will necessarily work. Treaties without genuine integration are just words. A truly morally committed transnational body would be far more effective – and any such body would be made far more significant if the UK were in it and driving it. Of course, whether the EU can actually become that body again is the real debate. Perhaps you think it is too far gone to take on that mantle again.

I said I would try to avoid speaking about the referendum and Britain, but I would finish on that point. We need a better European debate about the role and the purpose of the UK. Do not be suckered into a debate about economic calculations – or even to think that this debate is just about what the UK can get out of Europe. We are dealing with something far deeper than that, a question on morality and of politics for a new age.

Just before I finish, I hope you will forgive me the briefest shameless plug. The report on which this talk has in part been based, is called A Soul for the Union, and is available to buy on the Theos website, or I have a few copies with me for a very reasonable £5 fee.

We are a Christian think tank, we work on a wide range of issues to do with religion and society, if you’d like to be kept up to date please give me business cards so I can add you to our monthly newsletter, or look us up online. We are on social media – you can find us on Twitter and Facebook. We rely very much on the generosity of our supporters and if you were interested in pursuing that please do talk to me. More broadly we want to raise debates and change society and I would urge you to look us up, see what we’re working on and tell us what we’re getting right and, more interestingly, wrong.

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Digital Bibles, Notes and Memories

Jon Riding

One of the exciting things of recent years has been the growth of mobile phone technologies. Smart phones are now endemic in society, not just in the West but in the developing world where their ability to operate without expensive and difficult to maintain infrastructure (like telegraph poles) makes them a very attractive option for all and sundry. The popularity of apps like YouVersion, now up to 200,000,000 downloads, is clear evidence for how many are choosing to interact with scripture on a handheld device. United Bible Societies has responded by creating the Digital Bible Library within which it is hoped to store each new Bible translation and where potential publishers of a text may apply for a licence to publish it. All of this seems a good thing. The more widely the Bible is disseminated the more it will be read and the greater is the opportunity for the reader to encounter God in Christ through its narrative.

But a Canadian colleague has raised a question and I think it is an important one. He quotes two authorsi in the US who are asking what difference the medium might make make to the message and what changes the rise of digital texts is making to the way our brains assimilate information. I ordered copies of the books he recommended but books, not kindle editions. I have an iPad and I use it daily, mostly for FB and Twitter. It’s a communication tool, not a reading centre. The price of the books (even 2nd hand) would have had to have been a lot higher than the kindle price for me to have considered an electric option. And I am asking myself, why?

I think it is because I read with a pencil in my hand (and if the content is particularly important to me, with a notebook in front of me – I call this ‘active reading’ and I encourage my students to do it. I read: I forget; I make notes: I remember). It is a habit I picked up after first visiting the Gladstone Library at St Deiniol’s in Hawarden in the 1990s where I discovered not only William Gladstone’s vast collection of books but that each one carried annotations in his own hand. This struck me as a wise move (pace antiquarian book collectors). When I see something I’m interested in, I mark it on the page (I like books with wide margins) and add the page number and a brief note to a list I make on the back flyleaf. This list becomes in effect my index to the text. (If I have my notebook open I add an entry to my notes on the text under the relevant page number). This way I have my notes about the text alongside the text and, just as important, they are real notes, drawn by hand.

The way I write something contributes to my memory of it and helps me to recover the fulness of the initial discovery. As I write, I am recalling a fascinating week spent at the Univ. of Marrakech in 2006 and I’m going over to my study bookshelves and getting my (handwritten) commonplace book for 2006 to refresh my memory. The focus for the conference was type-setting Arabic. Two presentations have stuck in my mind ever since. The first was by a scholar from the Islamic Univ. in Cairo.ii With the aid of a calligrapher he explained how the manner in which a stroke is drawn in a classical Arabic text affects the meaning. In fact I see from my notes that the subsequent discussion concluded that it ‘effects’ the meaning. In the West we commonly assume this kind of thing, (in Arabic ‘kashida’) to be little more than a way of justifying text across a block in an artistic fashion. He challenged us to demonstrate how a computer could have the awareness to imitate a calligrapher’s understanding, expressed in his art.

The person who came closest to answering the challenge was Yannis Haralambous, then a Prof. at Brest University. He presented his work on ‘textemes’, a way of recording not just a glyph but its ‘enactment context’iii (my expression). In short, Yannis observed that the way we interact with an item in text stream is conditioned by the events prior to that encounter and by the general context we bring to the text as a whole – i.e. who we are and what we have done and seen. The calligrapher expresses all these things in a moment of creation. The printed book can only approximate this kind of encoding but does offer me the opportunity to add this kind of dynamic via my own notes on the page. When a text becomes a digital text we are changing its nature insofar as we are, necessarily, limiting the potential for this kind of interaction. One of the outcomes of the digital format is, in fact, to limit the reader’s response to what can be encoded.

Now I can hear a number voices telling me that I can make notes on an electric book reading app.. I hear you, but the examples of this I have seen don’t even approach the breadth of interaction a paper page gives me. Had I been making notes on a computing device in 2006 I wonder a) what format they might have been in, b) whether they would have survived until today as my commonplace book has and c) if they would have brought back my memories of the event so richly. (I’m looking at example glyphs drawn by the calligrapher for me in my notebook).

There is also on my study bookshelves an old UBS Gk NT (3rd ed.) which I’ve had since about 1988. It has recently been rebound for me (at a cost far in excess of the purchase of a new copy) after the duct tape that was holding the covers together finally tore through and the spine collapsed irrecoverably. Every page is covered in notes which I couldn’t bear the thought of losing (and which I am certain I shall never commit to the cloud alone). These notes are not just textual annotations, they are memories of encounters with the text and those with whom I shared those encounters. A few are in the hand of a colleague, now dead, who in fits of excitement would occasionally pick up my NT instead of his and write on it. I treasure these particularly.

Memory is not abstract but deeply connected to the physical reality which generates it and which is so often the means of its recall. The physicality of a book connects to this in a way that is, I think, more difficult for a digital text. As I flick through the pages of my NT I am, unconsciously, absorbing the wider context of a pericope enriched by my notes. It’s not just the particular reference that matters it’s how I arrive at it. For me there are connections here with Jeff Hawkins’s theory of cognition. In his book ‘On Intelligence’,iv Hawkins observed that the thing missing from so many of our cognitive models is the dimension of time. Nothing in this world exists apart from time. The physicality of a book places its text and our memories of that text into that event stream in a way which it is very hard for a digital text to emulate.

Does any of this matter? I don’t know. I feel it does but that may be just me and the way I look at the world. It matters to me that I am part of a narrative, personally, globally and cosmically. Whilst abstractions are useful ways to think about complex issues it is the daily physical encounter that, more than anything else, makes connections for me and shows me new things. How does that work with a digital text? Does the message become the medium, ephemeral and transitory on the one hand and locked within the limits of an encoding on the other? Clearly the possibilities for sharing and building common understandings are greater but what happens to the dissonant voices?

IMG_3598The medium is always, to some degree, the message. We need look no further than the incarnation for evidence of that: the ultimate inculturation but through a profoundly counter-cultural life. The digital texts we download to our phones and tablets offer us massively greater connectivity. The breadth of digital data available to us is truly breath taking and yet, at the same time, we are being drawn into a limited world bounded by shared understandings mediated by our devices, platforms and encodings. What do we stand to gain and what might we be in danger of losing?

For me physical books remain very important. They record not only the text but the process by which I continue to interact with it and so the peoples and places that have been part of that engagement. Given that my day job is to lead a research team working in computational linguistics I feel I should be a stronger of advocate for digital texts but in the end my sympathies are with St Paul, imploring Timothy to come quickly and bring not just the books but his notes as well (2 Tim 4.13). Then again, I am about to commit this article to a blog, out there on the cloud…

Jon Riding is the Director of the Sherborne Abbey Insight Programme, an Associate Lecturer in Theology at Sarum College and the leader of the United Bible Societies Glossing Technologies Project.

  • i Carr, N (2011) The Shallows: How the Internet is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember, Atlantic Books, London.
  • Carr, N (2016) The Glass Cage: Who Needs Humans Anyway, Penguin Random House, London.
  • Turkle, S (2012) Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, Basic Books, New York.
  • iv Hawkins, J and Blakeslee, S (2005) On Intelligence, Times Books, New York.
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The drama of our salvation

A Sherborne Abbey Insight Lecture on the Eucharist, given by Canon Eric Woods on Monday 1 February 2016

EricHSMany years ago, in 1945, a remarkable man, a Benedictine monk of the Church of England, Dom Gregory Dix, published a pioneering study of the Eucharist and its history called The Shape of the Liturgy. Some of his arguments are now disputed, but towards the end of the book he delivered a sustained meditation on the sheer power of the Eucharist which never fails to move me. Listen to part of it now:  

Was ever another command so obeyed? For century after century, spreading slowly to every continent and country and among every race on earth, this action has been done, in every conceivable human circumstance, for every conceivable human need from infancy and before it to extreme old age and after it, from the pinnacles of earthly greatness to the refuge of fugitives in the caves and dens of the earth. Men have found no better thing than this to do for kings at their crowning and for criminals going to the scaffold; for armies in triumph or for a bride and bridegroom in a little country church; for the proclamation of a dogma or for a crop of wheat; for the wisdom of the Parliament of a mighty nation or for a sick old woman afraid to die; for a schoolboy sitting an examination or for Columbus setting out to discover America; for the famine of whole provinces or for the soul of a dead lover; in thankfulness because my father did not die of pneumonia; for a village headman much tempted to return to fetish because the yams have failed; because the Turk was at the gates of Vienna; for the repentance of Margaret; for the settlement of a strike; for a son for a barren woman; for Captain so-and-so, wounded and prisoner of war; while the lions roared in the nearby amphitheatre; on the beach at Dunkirk; while the hiss of scythes in the thick June grass came faintly through the windows of the church; tremulously, by an old monk on the fiftieth anniversary of his vows; furtively, by an exiled bishop who had hewn timber all day in a prison camp near Murmansk; gorgeously, for the canonisation of S. Joan of Arc – one could fill many pages with reasons why men have done this, and not tell a hundredth part of them. And best of all, week by week and month by month, on a hundred thousand successive Sundays, faithfully, unfailingly, across all the parishes of Christendom, the pastors have done this just to make the plebs sancta Dei – the holy common people of God. 

To those who know a little of Christian history probably the most moving of all the reflections it brings is not the thought of the great events and the well-remembered saints, but of those innumerable millions of entirely obscure faithful men and women, everyone with his or her own individual hopes and fears and joys and sorrows and loves – and sins and temptations and prayers – once every whit as vivid and alive as mine are now. They have left no slightest trace in this world, not even a name, but have passed to God utterly forgotten by men. Yet each of them once believed and prayed as I believe and pray, and found it hard and grew slack and sinned and repented and fell again. Each of them worshipped at the eucharist, and found their thoughts wandering and tried again, and felt heavy and unresponsive and yet knew – just as really and pathetically as I do – these things. There is a little ill-spelled ill-carved rustic epitaph of the fourth century from Asia Minor: ‘Here sleeps the blessed Chione, who has found Jerusalem, for she prayed much’. Not another word is known of Chione, some peasant woman who lived in that vanished world of Christian Anatolia. But how lovely if all that should survive after sixteen centuries were that one had prayed much, so that the neighbours who saw all one’s life were sure one must have found Jerusalem! What did the Sunday eucharist in her village church every week for a life-time mean to the blessed Chione – and to the millions like her then, and every year since? The sheer stupendous quantity of the love of God which this ever-repeated action has drawn from the obscure Christian multitudes through the centuries is in itself an overwhelming thought….

It is because it is embedded deep down in the life of Christian peoples, colouring all the via vitae of the ordinary man and woman, marking its personal turning-points, marriage, sickness, death and the rest, running through it year by year with the feasts and fasts and rhythm of the Sundays, that the eucharistic action became inextricably woven into the public history of the Western world. The thought of it is inseparable from its great turning-points also. Pope Leo doing this in the morning before he went out to daunt Attila, on the day that saw the continuity of Europe saved; and another Leo doing this three and a half centuries later when he crowned Charlemagne Roman Emperor, on the day that saw that continuity fulfilled. Or again, Alfred wandering defeated by the Danes staying his soul on this, while mediaeval England struggled to be born; and Charles I also, on that morning of his execution when mediaeval England came to its final end. Such things strike the mind with their suggestions of a certain timelessness about the eucharistic action and an independence of its setting, in keeping with the stability in an ever-changing world of the forms of the liturgy themselves. At Constantinople they ‘do this’ yet with the identical words and gestures that they used while the silver trumpets of the Basileus still called across the Bosphorus, in what seems to us now the strange fairy-tale land of the Byzantine empire. In [the] twentieth century Charles de Foucauld in his hermitage in the Sahara ‘did this’ with the same rite as Cuthbert twelve centuries before in his hermitage on Lindisfarne in the Northern seas. This very morning I did this with a set of texts which has not changed by more than a few syllables since Augustine used those very words at Canterbury on the third Sunday of Easter in the summer after he landed. Yet ‘this’ can still take hold of a man’s life and work with it.

Oh to write like Dom Gregory! So much modern theological writing is so clumsy and ugly by comparison. Let me dare to try to add another paragraph, from my own experience:

I ‘did this’ as a boy in a little Norman church outside Brighton, with a conservative evangelical Vicar celebrating at the north end of the Holy Table, as he insisted it must be called, and whose sheer transparency and holiness of life taught me that it is not the baroque splendour of elaborate liturgy which matters, but sincerity of faith. I have ‘done this’ in great and glorious churches such as St Mary Redcliffe in Bristol and Sherborne Abbey, but I have done it too cross-legged on the floor with a group of students preparing for their final exams and needing to bring their fears and worries to the Lord. I have done it for Gerald Pitman, ‘Mr Sherborne’, shortly before he died when – arriving at Yeovil Hospital unprepared – I had to raid the private ward for bread and wine and then ‘do this’ from memory – 1662 of course – shortly before Gerald died. I have ‘done this’ for an old friend at his Requiem with tears pouring down my cheeks, and for a young couple getting married with the light of love and hope in their eyes. And I hope that one day someone will ‘do this’ for me and for the repose of my soul when my life and ministry on this earth are over.

Oceans of ink and vast cargoes of paper have been spent in arguments about what the Eucharist is, and what it is not. Most of that debate I find, and have always found, barren, sterile and bloodless. ‘Bloodless’ – there’s an ironic word for a debate about the Body and Blood of Christ! But of one thing you can be sure: when he took the bread and blessed it, broke it and shared it, Jesus did not intend to found an industry of cerebral, metaphysical philosophising about the meaning of what he was doing which would occupy Christians, and divide them, for the next two thousand years. There are no prizes for guessing with whom I would have sided when Martin Luther met Ulrich Zwingli, that rather bloodless Swiss reformer, at Marburg in October 1529 to try to reconcile their Reformation differences. The sticking point was the Eucharist. ‘Just a memorial meal’ said Zwingli, a reminder of what Jesus did for us on the Cross. Nonsense, said Luther. Jesus is present in the sacrament. And he shouted out the dominical words Hoc est corpus meum ‘this is my body’ – and chalked them on the table and pounded them with his fist.

Small wonder, too, that Princess Elizabeth Tudor, when her Catholic sister Mary was on the throne, demonstrated her skill at diplomacy combined with real theological insight when questioned about her understanding of the Eucharist. She is said to have replied:

Christ was the word that spake it.
He took the bread and break it;
And what his words did make it
That I believe and take it.

Queen Elizabeth I shaped and moulded the Anglican Settlement in our land more than any other. Queen Elizabeth II is her wonderful successor at keeping our odd, Catholic-and-Reformed, Church together. I wish our Bishops could learn a little of her wisdom, her diplomacy and her humility.

But it is to a book which has nothing whatsoever to do with liturgy that I turn for my understanding of what is happening when the Eucharist is celebrated. It is a wonderful book, still in print as a Penguin Modern Classic. It’s by the great Shakespearian director, Peter Brook, and it’s called The Empty Space. It’s a marvellous read, and I commend it to all of you who love the theatre – and who love liturgy.

Brook’s central argument is that the success of a play – any play – depends entirely on what the actors and director (and the audience) bring to it. In his terms, they can make it ‘deadly’, ‘holy’, ‘rough’ or ‘immediate’. I haven’t the time to go into the difference between the four, but we have all been to plays which were ‘deadly’, because the actors were just mouthing the words and going through the motions. And we have all been to plays which were ‘immediate’ because the actors were living every word and making the whole drama present to us, keeping us on the very edge of our seats. In the first the audience is entirely passive, receiving an offering which is bloodless and lifeless. In the second the audience is totally involved, living in and through the drama, totally caught-up in the plot as it unfolds.

And so it is with the Eucharist. When Sandra and I moved to Sherborne in 1993, we had just one Sunday, I think, between moving in and my being instituted and inducted as Vicar. We decided that we shouldn’t attend the Abbey Eucharist, but go to church outside the Benefice. I won’t tell you where we went, or who was presiding, but I remember my comment to Sandra as we left – ‘He celebrated the Eucharist like a demented machine-gun.’ To be fair, the priest had to race through one service in order to hurtle off to another church to celebrate another. But all he could deliver was ‘deadly theatre’ because there was no opportunity of making it ‘holy’, let alone ‘immediate’ – and we the congregation (it felt more like being the audience) were totally uninvolved in what was happening.

Now Peter Brook calls the best possible way of treating a play on stage an exercise in représentation. Note he has to use French – the English ‘representation’ would be meaningless in this context. Rehearsals might be about repétition, repetition, but it will be a dull play indeed if that which the actors have learned by the repetition of rehearsal does not have life breathed into it to become représentation – the making present again of that which the playwright first conceived.

In the same way, the Eucharist as the drama of our salvation must never be ‘repetition’, but rather représentation. It is about making present again Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross for us, made once for all two thousand years ago. Anglicans cannot talk of the ‘sacrifice of the mass’ as though Jesus’ sacrifice of himself is happening all over again, and again, and again. But we can talk of représentation as it is ‘made present’ again, and again, and again.

This, surely, is what the best theatre does. It may be Charlie’s Aunt or The Mousetrap, but however well-known and hackneyed the play it can come alive if the director and actors make it come alive, and grip us and involve us. Equally, it may be a great tragic drama such as King Lear or Marlowe’s Edward II, but a parroted version badly directed can kill it for us and make it ‘deadly’.

In other words, the Eucharist is a living thing which invites us all to be caught-up in this drama of our salvation. To that Dom Gregory Dix devoted 750 pages of his classic book. Even I could divide the service we think we know so well into at least twenty distinct but interwoven actions: journeying, arriving, welcoming, confessing, forgiving, praising (that’s the Gloria), proclaiming (the readings), teaching (the sermon), affirming (that’s the Creed), interceding, greeting (that’s the Peace), offering, receiving, blessing, breaking, sharing, thanking, sending, departing and serving. And we could have done worse than devote an Insight Lecture to each one. Sadly, there is not world enough or time.

So let me offer you the four key actions of the Eucharist – taking, blessing, breaking and sharing. Here is where the great moments of the drama come. They begin with taking, taking ordinary kitchen things – bread and wine and water – and transforming them. How typical of Jesus to begin with the kitchen, just as his first miracle began with turning water into wine. The ordinary is always the raw material of the extraordinary. Miracles begin in the kitchen.

It is hugely significant, too, that at major services in the Abbey and in many Anglican churches, the bread and the wine are brought to the Altar by representatives of the laity, starting at the west end and bringing the elements through the whole congregation. To quote Bishop John Robinson (to whom I shall return later in this lecture):

The offertory is the thrust of the secular into the very heart of the sacred. It should not start in the sanctuary – if it does, our religion is losing its roots in the stuff and muck of life. It starts wherever the people of God find themselves during the week…. For what we do in this action is to bring the world – our world – into the Church, just as at the end of the service we have to take the Church into the world. .

Then comes the blessing, which takes those kitchen things and transforms or transfigures them. It is upon this priestly act that most controversy has descended. And what is ‘blessing’? The former Bishop of Peterborough, the late Douglas Feaver (who sometimes in retirement worshipped here) used to describe a blessing as “a semi-celestial lick”. When I watch our two cats greeting one another, I think I know what he meant. An English bishop visiting Uganda attempted the blessing in the local tribal language, and was much embarrassed when his huge congregation dissolved into laughter: he had offered them the grease of God rather than the peace of God! But in a way he had got it right: a blessing oils the points of contact between ourselves and God, ourselves and one another, ourselves and our homes, our hopes and our dreams.

But in the context of the Eucharist, the action of blessing is above all one of thanksgiving. In fact that’s what the Greek word “eucharist” means: thanksgiving. It was the word the early Church most often used as the name for what we are doing today – not Holy Communion, not the Lord’s Supper, not the Mass, but the Eucharist, the great thanksgiving. In the Middle Ages, all this was more or less lost. The spotlight became focused on the priest, and the prayer of blessing slipped into a different translation, as the prayer of consecration. And when those priestly hands lifted the bread, that became the moment at which people believed it was changed, from bread into body, the Body of Christ. And the Sanctus bell was rung, so that those outside the church building – sick or working or just plain idle – knew that at that moment the miracle – or magic – had happened. And it was repeated a few moments later, when the chalice containing the wine was blessed, and elevated as what was now the Blood of Christ.

Before we dismiss all this as mediaeval superstition, think what you did at Christmas. You took a piece of folded card from a shelf in the shop. You bought it for far more than its material, intrinsic worth. You took your pen and consecrated it to someone special. That card became a blessing from you but also a blessing to you. And the same thing happens at the Eucharist as bread and wine are blessed. And as they are lifted up for you to see – and you really should be watching this action, this wonderful piece of divine drama, not burying your face in a sort of pious slouch – so the significance of the bread and wine changes, and they become to you and for you the Body and Blood of Christ.

But it’s not magic. The biblical and early Christian understanding of the Eucharist was not that the priest suddenly turned bread and wine into something else, but that the Family of God offered bread and wine and received them back with a new significance, by blessing God for them and over them. The blessing opens up a channel. Blessing opens up a channel between us and God, and between us and other people. Blessing opposes and counteracts sin, which is the state of being closed to God and closed to other people: literally up-tight about life and living. Blessing breaks down the barriers, greases the points of contact, and opens us up to the world and to God.

Then the breaking, when the bread is broken (and the wine is poured), to make it clear to us that this is not something being done to or for us, but something which requires us to offer ourselves to be broken on the altar of this world and to pour ourselves out in love and service to those around us, as we discover in the Holy Communion how to make holy community. At one level, the breaking of the bread or the fraction (as it is called) of the large priest’s wafer, is purely an administrative process to enable distribution to take place. Those of you who sit at the front of the nave at the Parish Eucharist on Sunday mornings know that you do not receive the individual rounded white wafer. You receive a segment of a very large wafer indeed, called the priest’s wafer, which I like to use at the High Altar because then you can see it being blessed and broken. The very central segments are obviously triangular. I thought I would mention that, as some of you look a bit puzzled when your wafer is triangular rather than round. And please be aware that you can ask for a gluten-free wafer, which is square, or a totally wheat-free wafer, which is made from potato flour. The Good Lord will honour them all, just as he honoured illicit, secret Communions held by allied prisoners on the River Kwai, celebrated with all they had to hand – water, and a little rice.

Which brings us to sharing, for this is not something we can do on our own. Holy Communion by definition has to be a communion with others. That is part of what the Reformation was about – the rejection of private masses for individuals, dead or alive. It is for us all. It is about sharing as our Holy Communion helps us make holy community. And that, I think, is faithful to the New Testament witness. As St Paul makes clear, it is the common sharing of the loaf and the cup which enables the holy community to make holy communion, binding themselves together as the new community. That is what St Paul means when he says, ‘Because there is one loaf, we who are many are one body’. The Eucharist is that which creates, and constantly recreates, the Church.

It begins to sound as if, despite my earlier comments, I am getting too cerebral, too theological. But once again, not. Every eucharistic action, as I have been trying to demonstrate, is earthed in the everyday and the mundane, taking kitchen things and ordinary human actions and reactions, and transforming them and transfiguring them. And so it is with the sharing. We need to share communion to be a community. We need to share Holy Communion to be a holy community. Of course it is possible for our community to be dysfunctional, just as it happens so often that families are dysfunctional. No-one who has been taking funerals for nearly forty years can be unaware of what strange things families do to one another. They are all technically family, but they do nothing to make themselves family, or to be family, and then they wonder why, when they come together, everything is so brittle and unpleasant. “We go to each other’s funerals”, one grande dame explained to me one day, “but we would not think of going to each other’s weddings”. Well, there you are. But the Christian family is one for whom every opportunity to make Communion is party time, and a blessing – which is why we are diminished and impoverished whenever a family member is not there. “I won’t see you on Sunday, Vicar” people say; “I’ve got family coming”. “But you are family” I want to reply. “Bring the rest along with you”. So few understand that it sometimes breaks my heart. But still we must go on, taking, blessing, breaking and sharing.

If I have learned any theology over the years, much of it is due to my Director of Studies at Trinity College, Cambridge, the late and great Bishop John A T Robinson. He is remembered today, rather unfairly, as a liberal theologian of the swinging years of the 1960’s, when he was Bishop of Woolwich. His chief crime then was to try to relate the Gospel to a society in rapid and often destructive change. In truth he was a superb New Testament scholar with a deep understanding of liturgy, who believed we have always to struggle to translate the Gospel into the language and terms of today. He tried to do that to the liturgy, first of Clare College where he was Dean, then for Southwark Diocese, and then in my day for Trinity College Chapel. I must confess that the service books we use Sunday by Sunday in the Abbey are modelled consciously on what he did with smaller resources decades before. So I am going to give him the last word, as my own tribute to a man blessed of God:

When we come to the Eucharist we come not simply to a representation of something that has happened, as in the Oberammergau play. We come to be present at – and at the same time to present, to transmit to the world – something that is happening. Here at this service we enter the very workshop of the new world. Here the master carpenter is in action, refashioning matter and men, forming and tooling the Body which is the instrument of his mission. When we have been to Communion we have been present at the changing of the world, present at the carpenter’s bench, yes, and on the carpenter’s bench, so that our whole lives come out chiselled and renewed.

And for that, thanks be to God.

Follow Us:

Two Minds, One Heart!

Annmarie.An Insight Lecture given by the Revd Sister Ann-Marie Stuart, F.J., MA
on the 11
th January 2016 at Sherborne.

In his book entitled ‘The Collage of God’ Canon Mark Oakley, Chancellor of St. Paul’s Cathedral refers to an image from The Greek Philosopher Archilochus, suggesting that there are two different takes on life. He said, the Fox knows many things, while the hedgehog knows one big thing. Isaiah Berlin interpreted this as meaning that some people relate to one central vision, while the foxes of this world collect a kind of Collage of many ends, seemingly unrelated but which swirl and merge at different levels, creating a huge collage of thoughts and insights and that’s where I believe an Anglican take, and my take on the Eucharist/or the Communion service belongs. But there is method in my madness and perhaps we need a bit of both!

I need to begin by reminding you that the title we have inherited for what we so often call the Communion Service was originally known as the Breaking of Bread, until this was overtaken by the Greek term Eucharist, meaning Thanksgiving, taken from St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. And Worshipping as we do in Sherborne Abbey we have received an unusual and extremely rich inheritance.

If we situate our Eucharistic gatherings within their proper context, then as our Abbey Congregation gathers to celebrate the Eucharist together, we find that our worship fits both into the silent, stillness of the Benedictine Monastic Contemplative tradition, with its emphasis upon the ability to Listen with one’s whole being, which is One MindWhile also as a Greater Church, which was historically a Cathedral, our Eucharist fits into the more formal and vocal chorus of what Paul Bradshaw, one time vice principle of Cuddesdon Theological College, Oxford, describes as “Cathedral” worship, which is characterised by the singing of thanksgiving, praise, intercession, and scripture readings, and that’s the Second Mind!

However, the two minds mesh and interweave to a certain extent when we place our Sunday Eucharist into one last context that of the Biblical injunction to pray without ceasing. As the letter to the Thessalonians tells us: Rejoice always, pray without ceasing; give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. (Thessalonians 5: 17.) And this of course adds another important dimension, that of Rejoicing. If you are still with me, so far we have the stillness and silence of interiority, of what goes on within our hearts; externalised in the ritual of Singing Hymns and Psalms, the Recitation of Scripture and other words. The 2 minds.

And it is possible to read this as if the silent interiority of the prayer within our hearts, and the apparent exterior ritual are in some senses separate, or in contention, and certainly some spiritual writers have suggested this. Evelyn Underhill for instance in the only book of hers that I can really stomach, simply called Worship, suggests that there could be a danger in allowing ritual to displace the interiority of prayer, which for her would undermine the significance of the Eucharistic Activity, because it would upset the balance between the 2 minds! 

But we do need to tease out the real, the genuine if you like, significance of a Eucharist which even in our own time has changed dramatically from the Book of Common Prayer that most of you grew up with, to the ASB, the Alternative Service Book produced in1980 not a replacement for the Book of Common prayer but as the title suggests an Alternative until the year 2000 when Common Worship became the norm for Anglican Eucharistic Celebrations, which includes the Book of Common Prayer. Because it seems to me that essentially in breaking bread and inviting his friends to do so in Remembrance of His presence amongst them, was to lift thanksgiving, praise, and worship be it ritual and/or interior, way beyond the recitation of Psalms and Hymns and even Scripture Readings.

According to Michelle Guiness writing in her book The Heavenly Party the Hebrew word to Remember is Zakar, meaning ‘to have imprinted on one’s subconscious.’ And she also quotes the Jewish Sage, Baal Shem Tov who suggests that ‘to remember is the key to Salvation.  Since God never forgets us, He remembers his love, remembers his mercy, remembers his covenant; remembers to be gracious. And British Celtic Christian teachers such as John Scottus Eriugena & Pelagius suggested that our greatest spiritual problem is to forget who we really are, people in relationship with the Living God. According to Professor Hamish Swanston one time Professor of Theology at Kent University (RIP) Augustine of Hippo the African Theologian gives us a hint when he suggests that in the power of the Spirit as we Remember, as we encounter the simple, beautiful, loving act of a friend about to be taken away from His friends, we make real again in our own act of remembering, the way in which Jesus the Christ desired to insert Himself not only into their lives after his death, but into our lives, and into human history as well. (Augustine of Hippo. The Confessions. Ch: 24-25. P 142 & 143.)

While we may be in two minds it appears that the Living God is in One Mind, and One Heart, which means that we could risk missing the whole point of the Eucharistic Memory if we only emphasise what we do instead of remembering what He, in the power of the Spirit and in obedience to His Father wishes to do for us continually, and not on a one off basis. And it is this infusion of New Trinitarian and creative Life Giving Presence, which may make our two minds into OneAnd remember we are told that Christ the high priest continually intercedes for us at the feet of His Father. (Hebrews 7:25 and Romans 8:24). However, Evelyn Underhill does present us with a memorable image of the way to approach our Eucharist when she says, ‘I come to adore His (God’s) splendour and fling myself and all I have at His feet. (Worship Page 8.) We may fling but He reaches out to catch & fill, and revitalise us with His presence. And we have the task of unravelling, and trying to understand three dimensions of the Eucharistic Activity.

  1. Notice I call it an activity, rather than a quiet half hour or so, for the Eucharist is essentially a movement of encounter. A dynamic conversation if you like, be it silent or vocal between the Living God and ourselves in common. Hence the title Common Worship! We have a Living God it would seem who continues to stretch out towards us in creative ways that defy our human ingenuity. We often share meals with friends, and such times are often times of intimacy and enjoyment, but how much of ourselves are we able to insert into each meal? It is even conceivable that we may share food with someone whose life we have saved; but how often are we in a position to share food with someone whose whole demeanour has been to love, and save us from the inside out, in order to put our jumbled lives back together, and to draw us joyfully together. Jesus the Jew reveals Himself in the way that any Jew should be able to understand by inserting Himself into Human History. 
  2. In the early church Bradshaw reminds us most people saw the injunction to pray without ceasing as suggesting the transformation of the whole of one’s life. The exchange of presence suggested in the coming together of the Three Minds; of a) Still, Silent adoration that is also b) Ritual infused with the c) the presence or nearness of the Living God, can be seen as the catalyst which can change lives. And it’s certainly the way that I have always seen and taught Eucharist as a Catalyst for Change in a whole variety of ways, and at a whole variety of levels both individual and community wise.
    You would almost think that the early church was familiar with the best presentation of the idea of Mindfulness, the attempt to see prayer as a state of continuous communion with God. And if we are to take St. Paul seriously then we are not just followers of Christ but as he says, we are “in Christ.” (Philippians 1.1.) While St. John’s Gospel takes this one step further when he tells us that Christ taught that, ‘Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me and I in them!’ if we take Philippians literally here then he seems to see the people he was addressing who are ‘in Christ’ as having more significance than even Bishops and Deacons (this was before the term priest was used) since he addresses all of ‘the saints’ first!
  3. But this idea of being “in Christ” is one that helps us significantly as we consider our role in the dialogue of Eucharist. One of my heroes was Oscar Arnulfo Romero, the Bishop of San Salvador in El Salvador 1917-1980. Not long before his murder, he told his people,. ‘You have a great ability. The most beautiful dimension of your human vocation is the ability to speak with God, and to enter into dialogue with your creator.’ It seems to me that the Eucharist provides us with a stunning vehicle both for ourselves and for God to do just this, and therefore it seems to me that this Divine exchange is at the heart of the activity of our Eucharist our Communion Service.

And while we are at it, let’s dispel the myth that the priest alone celebrates the Eucharist, in theory theologically it should be the Bishop as the representative of Christ who delegates all of us to celebrate together. As John D. Zizioulas an Orthodox Metropolitan (that’s a Bishop to you and me) who is also a theologian reminds us, ‘The Eucharist requires the gathering of all the members of the local community’ (page 109). And as Luther reminds us we only have priests because we are a priestly people.

So now let’s take a peek at this activity that I keep referring to. Zizioulas gives us a thumb nail sketch of what took place originally. He gives us an overview of all the four different accounts of the exchange of presence that took place at the Last Supper. Scholars disagree about whether it was really a Passover meal or not. Let’s take it that it was at least similar, after all Jesus the Jew certainly knew how the Cedar meal should go and if he changed or re-arranged bits and pieces of the ritual then let’s agree that he knew what he was doing. In fact he left out quite a lot of the traditional Meal omitting the traditional questions and answers, the four ritual cups, and the various ritual use of herbs, and of course the main course of lamb. So it would seem that from its inception the Eucharistic ritual was based on something new, a radical change!

To begin with what had always been a family meal is now a meal taken with the some carefully chosen friends instead. What it did contain, was the Blessing of a cup of wine that he shared with his friends, then the breaking of bread (So meaningful at the time that later it revealed who the stranger was on the Road to Emmaus.) Then He dipped the piece of bread and passed it around, explaining the significance of the bread as he did so. At the end of the meal he took the cup again, presumably recharged with wine, blessed it, and passed it around, explaining its meaning as he did so.

St Paul uses this same pattern to describe early Eucharistic practice in his 1st letter to the Corinthians, when he refers to the Cup first Chapter 10 verse 16. Although later in the same letter to the same church in Corinth Chapter 11: verses 23-26 he tells us that Bread was also offered before the cup at other Liturgies. Suggesting that there was a variety of practice in the early church. Writing about this Professor Thomas O’Loughlin, Professor of Historical Theology at Nottingham University reminds us in his book entitled The Eucharist, that in the early liturgies, bread was not always offered first, and as for the cup, well it was the cup that mattered rather than what was in it, as water was often used instead of wine.

But we need to look at what Jesus said, perhaps we can catch his intention (just a glimpse in a glass darkly) concerning His meaning and significance. He said, ‘This is my body, this is my blood.’ It’s as if he cannot bear to be parted from his friends, so he is trying to remain as close to them as possible. I entrust the whole of myself into your hands, and into your hearts. Remember me, (imprint this on your subconscious!) do this he says in Remembrance of me, and then he reminds them of one of his teachings the ‘Old Law said to you, but I say to you,’ he reminds them, and it’s only mentioned in Luke’s Gospel that this is the New Covenant. This thing we do together he says is NEW! And as Zizioulas points out to us it’s new because Christ has now made Himself into the Paschal Lamb, that’s why there was no need for any other kind of sacrificial lamb.

This is a NEW Sacrifice. And there are references of course in John’s Gospel particularly Chapter 6 verses 51-59 when Jesus refers to Himself as the Bread of Life. ‘He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood (because I am the sacrifice) will have eternal life,’ not just physical life but spiritual life, the fullness of life. St. Irenaeus the 2nd century Father of the Church put it this way, ‘God’s Glory is man/woman fully alive.’ So we have moved away from the old order, we’ve moved away from a natural family to a carefully selected family of friends, and this is the context for the New Covenant, which consists of a network of relationships based on the kind of loving friendships that transcends death. It’s actually based upon a Person willing to undergo anything in order to SAVE his friends. Not just his contemporaries either, as John’s Gospel makes clear as Jesus says, but, ‘All those who are drawn to me by the father.’ And the word drawn here according to William Berkley the Scottish Theologian being the same word in Greek that is used for drawing a sword, or a heavily laden net to the shore, both suggesting perhaps some kind of resistance perhaps. And it’s interesting isn’t it this connection between the breaking of bread (which we call the body of Christ) which takes place before His death and again after His death, and down through the centuries many, many times, which we are told can alone provide us with the fullness of real life, everything else is shadow.

The only way of dealing with the situation of the sacrificial context of a Breaking of Bread which took place prior to the actual death of Christ is to understand that time stands still here, time past and time future are made relevant in time present as T.S. Eliot reminds us, ‘At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless; neither from not towards; at the still point there the dance is, but neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it a fixity, where time past and future are gathered…..’ Burnt Norton II.  Yet we are provided with a movement not only within the Eucharist itself but also down through the centuries; hinting/pointing towards the Divine Parousia, the Heavenly Banquet, that great Celebratory meal, when all shall be one, and everyone and all time shall be gathered into the Presence of the Master of the Universe, according to Jewish teaching. Mind you I think I’d like to say that at every Eucharist in some sense the Parousia begins to take place.

In the creation of something NEW Jesus still manages to create a synthesis between theological Tradition and Innovation. Do we see our Eucharist today as capable of carrying the weight of this synthesis between the Old and the New, which is now revealed as being at the heart of our Spiritual and Liturgical lives? Do we realise the significance of the Breaking of Bread which was the original title for the Eucharist. In breaking ONE loaf into pieces, which the whole community share we declare our desire to be one people, one body of Christ. (1 Cor 10:17.) One community of friends. And as Professor O’Loughlin also tells us it is almost unique in religious ritual for all to drink from one cup, it is counter cultural. In private life we would never do this no matter how intimate our gathering, and even less likely in recent times, yet at this meal on and off for centuries (because we have to remember that the practice lapsed for many centuries) we have gathered to declare our willingness to become one, and to dare to drink the cup that our Master drank before us, the cup of fellowship and perhaps as in his case the cup of suffering.

And the indirect reference to the Parousia is vitally important; for this in Gathering in Jewish teaching is not just concerned with the in-gathering of the Jewish tribes but is genuinely inclusive, all will be gathered in we’re told, from the East and from the West, from the South and the North, and together with us all created things, all of God’s creation, will be gathered in, you know ‘Brother Sun and Sister Moon etc.’ And this is the Kingdom of God that we so often refer to in our Readings and in our prayers. So what is this mysterious Kingdom all about, what happens if we take all the parables about it and see what they tell us?

Well, the Greek word used in the text for Kingdom is Basileia, which is strange for it’s also the word used for Church, and it could be dangerous to suggest that only those who belong to the church can enter the Kingdom. Throughout the centuries Christian writers and once again Augustine of Hippo have refused to discuss the Kingdom in this way. (Ref: A of H City of God) And the word Basileia actually means Reign, not realm or domain. So a better term for the Kingdom would be the Reign of God, and it is the whole point of the Good News that Jesus has brought to us. He tells us that the Kingdom is among us. (Luke 17.) It is present but not often recognised, and It is something to be prayed for. Thy Kingdom come, how often do we say it but how often do we mean it or want it to come? And lastly it is about a mystery of Love, Justice and Peace. Just what we all really, really want! Because we truly do need His presence.

Just as at His nativity (or as the Book of Wisdom puts it) when God’s almighty Word leapt down from heaven through the activity of the Holy Spirit our Celtic Christian ancestors (who built the first Church here in Sherborne) taught that the light already within creation from its inception, glowed to greet Him, so too in the very word Parousia we are reminded of the coming again of the Holy One of God, ‘Who was, and, is, and is to come!’ This banquet will be the celebration to end all celebrations of everything that exists.

In using Bread and Wine and describing them as His body and His blood, Christ in a real sense takes hold of all creation symbolised by the Bread and Wine. In so doing He holds everything that contributed to the creation of what he holds, fields of wheat and barley, vines and grapes, earth, wind, rain and sun, and gathers them in as well. And as he gathers these elements which have sustained Him in life and continue to sustain us, all creation is ingathered so that the Divine Banquet is foreshadowed, and a transparent window opens between earth and heaven, the kingdom, the new creation, the new covenant is confirmed at every Eucharistic gathering.

But just as the Cedar meal has its own prayerful, relaxed, family ritual, which hinges on the escape from Egypt every aspect of that meal takes the participants through a transformative experience, which is not limited to a mere reliving of the past; so too the internal movement of the Eucharist takes us on a mini spiritual and deeply human journey loaded with meaning. So we would be mistaken if we reduced our understanding of the Eucharistic activity to merely the words of institution or even to those of the Eucharistic prayer. From the moment we arrive in the Abbey, greet our friends /or are greeted at the door, we are invited to put down our cares, our concerns and the messiness of our lives, which the brief absolution at the beginning of our service calms, and heals, reminding us that someone else, our own Paschal Person has taken them upon himself, as He reaches down to liberate us, clearing our minds ready to be enlivened by the words of Scripture, with the themes taken up in music and song. And the action continues until we leave the Abbey and way beyond….Its as if the words of Institution reach out and draw us in, before sending us out to fulfil our tasks. All this situates us within and beyond our Jewish Historical past, all preparing us for the Eucharistic Prayer the vehicle for our dialogue which is loaded with such meaning, so much so that the great exclamation at the end must be sung. After which we begin the preparation for a more tangible communion, followed by our thanksgiving, and a preparation for the task entrusted to us when we leave.

On the road to Emmaus the disciples eyes were opened, their sorrow at the folly of the cross was overtaken by their joy in the resurrection experience of the breaking of bread. In a real sense we too are reminded on the Eucharistic walk that we are travelling always, and at all times towards the Living God who is walking with measured pace towards each one of us, we are always celebrating Resurrection at every Eucharist. If nothing else I hope all this leaves you with a sense of each Eucharist as we experience it today as just a fleeting lit up moment of time, which is part of a huge historical and universal action of worship, encompassing the whole of creation, and all time, lifting us up towards the Living God, as the Living God reaches down through time and space to touch our hearts in order to change them. Remember the painting on the roof of the Sistine Chapel, Christ stretching his hand out towards Adam, whose hand is reaching out towards Christ’s and the frisson of energy where their hands nearly but don’t quite meet.

We may be the still and silent type, we may be the singing and dancing type, we may rely more upon the words of Scripture, we may love singing hymns and elegant prayers, and all these things are important but not nearly as important as the action of throwing ourselves and all we are at His feet, as he reaches down to touch and heal our hearts, and we allow ourselves to be caught up in the orchestration of it all.

But I must allow for those of you who feel that perhaps you have never had a spiritual experience. Someone whose theological writings I admire very much indeed also claimed never to have had a Spiritual experience even though her biographer entitled her book, A Capacity for RaptureDorothy L. Sayers, (apparently the L really mattered) wrote some of the most transparently clear and limpid theology I’ve ever read. Her other books and plays and her Advertising Copy writing were only in order to earn sufficient to fund her real work. Yet without realising it herself Sayers had a kind of intuitive knowledge of the Living God and of the audience for her books and religious plays, which did inculcate a capacity for rapture. Somehow she put her finger on the pulse of her society, and for both her and Evelyn Underhill the Eucharist was the focus of their spiritual lives, as Anglican women. And the mystic John of the Cross writing centuries before either of them described his spiritual experience in a similar manner. I did not know the door but when I found the way, unknowing where I was, I learned enormous things, but what I felt I cannot say, for I remained unknowing, rising beyond all science.

In our DIY world, we tend to place far too much importance upon our capacity to understand, to do, and to comprehend, when in fact what really matters is the theme running throughout this talk, what really matters is what He can do for us, rather than what we can do for Him. As John tells us in his first letter, ‘In this is love, not that we have loved God but that He has loved us…’ (1.John 3:10a). Augustine of Hippo once wrote that ‘God is nearer to us than we are to ourselves. ‘And the Psalmist who wrote Ps.139 seems to agree with him.

And Dorothy L. Sayers has something else to say of interest to us. In her teaching on the Nicene Creed, she suggests that man (and of course women) are most themselves when they are occupied in creation. She goes on to suggest that when we say the words, ‘I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of all things’, we acknowledge our participation in creation, because we are made in the image of this Maker God. And she suggests that we may test this out by observing those who create, either with their minds or with their hands as they are most truly themselves and ‘right’ with themselves, and with God during that act of creating. For her this would apply to writing a play, or a novel, or playing a musical instrument, cooking or painting, sewing or singing or any other creative activity, perhaps even doing the books!.

In this mysterious, mystical and yet hugely pragmatic activity that we call the Eucharist, during which we make music, break bread, drink wine, and read the Word of God, the Church of God inspired by the Holy Spirit has designed a vehicle, which allows the Living God to continue to meet with us at whatever stage of perception /or stage of life we may have reached. Just as he met the needs of his friends in the upper room, the needs of the monks who for many years worshipped here, and the needs of our congregations gathered here today, He takes us as we are. His disciples were quite a strange bunch and we are no stranger! Who we are, and how we are, if we are his friends it seems that is good enough for Him.

However, when we leave our task is not over, any more than Christ’s task was over when he left the upper room and the disciples fled denying Him. I’m sure we would not have fared any better, we too would have feared death, as He did. But as we have learned that small and discreet act of breaking bread transfigured His death into a glorious foretaste of heaven, so we are right to rejoice, right to bring all our sorrows to the Eucharist not to deny them but to allow the scales to be taken from our eyes, like the couple on the way to Emmaus. And we have our task, as we leave our upper room, we take the memory of our encounter with the Living God and we are invited to take our Remembrance of a genuinely dynamic life away with us in order to pass it on to others.

And if I have failed to give you a definition of the Eucharist that is quite deliberate, it seems to me that definitions tend to limit our understanding, rather than expand them, all except for one. When Elizabeth the 1st was interrogated in Mary’s Reign as to her understanding of the Eucharist this is what she replied, and it’s my reply also.

Christ was the word that spake it. He took the bread and break it; And what his words did make it That I believe and take it.

Once the scales are removed from our eyes then we can see if only in a glass very darkly the coming together of all those we love, alive or dead in and through and with the Trinity who hold us together in One community of friends. It’s no harm to remember that the Trinitie North Isle in our Abbey is also the darkest part of the Abbey. But the penultimate word goes to John of the Cross again who seems to know how we feel, when he remarked that if we wish to be sure of the road we tread on, then we must close our eyes and walk in the dark. We often do but that must not stop us from walking the walk.

I started out with the idea of two minds but to summarise I think I need to say that as far as I am concerned there are three ways into the journey of the Eucharist.

  1. One way is that of inner stillness and silence, the contemplative approach if you like, which we have inherited here from our Benedictine forbears,
  2. another is through the delights of music and the Word, and prayers
  3. the last one is through the in-gathering of the Community of friends, the coming together as one people who belong together.

Each way is viable, each of them acceptable, and each of them will lead us gently and carefully along the path which the Lord has prepared for us. It almost reminds me of Alice in Wonderland, dashing off after the white rabbit & falling down the rabbit hole! No way is higher than another, they are just different as we are all different but as the musical Godspell revealed somewhere along the journey the Lord sings an intimate and special song just for us and with us. So our journey is unique and not to be compared with anyone else’s journey, and there remains the One heart of the Trinity at the still centre.

And as we leave, to take coffee alone in our rooms, to meet with friends or family, to work, to play, to relax we are invited to Remember that we are a Eucharistic people, we have been touched by God, whether we like it or not, we are not the person we were when we arrived. And we are invited to pass that touch both Spiritual and human on, in whatever way we are able, in many and varied ways whenever we gather for meals, be it in pub or restaurant or among family and friends, because we have broken bread together, and if we live alone and eat alone, just remember the Mystical Body of Christ, we are never alone, ever since we were consecrated to the Living God at Baptism we do not walk alone, or sit or eat alone, and here is Paul’s advice as we do so, he says….

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. (Thessalonians 5: 17.) Have fun in other words!


Augustine of Hippo. The City of God.
Paul Bradshow: Eucharistic Origins
Michelle Guiness: The heavenly Party.
Thomas O’Loughlin, The Eucharist, Origins and Contemporary Understandings. BloomsburyT&T Clark, 2015. Pages 170-179.
Dorothy L. Sayers. The Mind of the Maker. & Unpopular Opinions
Evelyn Underhill. Worship.
John D. Zizioulas: The Eucharistic Communion & the world.


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Why translate the Bible ?

 Human language is a very fascinating thing. We use it to pass on information, to express our deepest emotions, to pray, to praise, to encourage and, sadly, sometimes to denigrate. The conduit for all these is language, spoken and written. Language defines who we are, preselects our friends, links us with our heritage and sets our expectations.

Not only do we shape language, language shapes us. Different languages can make a dramatic difference to our understanding of a particular event or story. Recently, researchers in Germany assembled three groups of people, one group were monoglot English speakers, another monoglot German speakers and the third were bilingual between English and German. They showed each person a photograph of a woman walking across a street in a city. Those that spoke only English described the scene as ‘there is a woman crossing a street’. The monoglot German speakers saw ‘a woman walking towards a building’. Most interestingly, the bilinguals fell into two groups. Those that had been given a text in English to read before being shown the photograph saw it as the English speakers had read it, those who were give a German text to read saw what the German speakers had perceived.

11 years ago, I was present in St Paul’s Cathedral in London for a service to celebrate 200 years since the founding of the Bible Society movement. The speaker was Rowan Williams, then the Archbishop of Canterbury. He had some interesting things to say about language and translation:

“Of all the great world religions, it is Christianity that has the most obvious and pervasive investment in translation. We do not have a sacred language; from the very first, Christians have been convinced that every human language can become the bearer of scriptural revelation. The words in which revelation is first expressed are not solid, impenetrable containers of the mystery; they are living realities which spark recognition across even the deepest of gulfs between cultures, and generate new words native to diverse cultures which will in turn become alive and prompt fresh surprise and recognition.
Biblical translation represents an enormous act of faith – the faith that what is given by God in one context is capable of being equally transfiguring and authoritative in all other human environments. Jesus speaks Greek and Aramaic; but the whole narrative of his words and work, his ministry and death and resurrection, is such that he can speak to call, to judge, to forgive and to bless in every human language that has been or will be”.

Now if this is so, the task of translating the Bible is foundational for the mission of the church all over the world. Through scripture Christ is welcomed into every language, culture and experience. But this remains a hope, not a reality. There are about 7,000 active languages in the world today. Only about 500 have a translation of the whole Bible. A further 1,300 languages have a NT translation and another 1,000 languages have a translation of at least one book of the Bible. That leaves more than 4,000 languages without a translation of even a part of the Bible. True, the major international lingua franca of our times all have a translation of the Bible and by this measure between 4 and 5 of the 7 billion souls on earth have access to a translation of scripture they can understand, at least to some degree. But this is not the same as hearing God speak in the language we learned as a child. Language is formative. To encounter God within the culture and language that made us who we are is transformative.

When a translation is completed the whole community gathers to celebrate. Copies of the new scripture are distributed and eager eyes scan the pages. “Now!”, they say, “now we know that God is one of us, that he understands us and shares our lives”! That’s a powerful thing. But perhaps the most exciting thing is that, just as the English and German speakers saw different things in the photograph of the woman walking across a street, so too in their new translation a community may discover things about God that you and I may not have seen through our Bibles.
The lady on the right is holding the first book of the Bible to be translated into her language – Ikoma. Waikoma live in Tanzania close to the Ngorongoro crater.

“We have a gospel to proclaim”, says the hymn; but so too does God and one of the ways we can help that happen is through translating the story of a radical Creator whose extravagant love led him to gibbet outside Jerusalem and whose gospel continues to transform lives all over the world as more and more of his people encounter him through his word in their language.

That’s why we do this.

Jon Riding
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What is Spirituality?

Annmarie.This is a really good question, because over the centuries the meaning of the term Spirituality has changed and been adapted. In fact the term as we use it today is comparatively modern. If you try to Google a definition you will find amongst others that even in 1961 the Oxford dictionary gave six meanings, five of which had nothing to do with religion at all, and the last one merely used the term to distinguish the difference between spiritual interests and material things. Communicating with the dead for instance is suggested or a life principle or an interest in religion!!! OR an alternative to religion.

In the words of the spiritual writer Evelyn Underhill ‘The Spiritual life is a dangerously ambiguous term, it would be interesting to know what meaning any one reader might give to the term. Many might say, ‘a life of my own inside’: and others something very holy, difficult and peculiar!’ Purity of heart, she says, is not something killed in the refrigerator but the secure and ardent love of Christ,’ which raises yet another unusual concept for us today that of purity of heart.

Early Christian teaching suggested that to be full of God was to be pure of heart, something we might well long for and desire but not something that many of us would dare to claim we have achieved, even though St. John’s Gospel suggests in its prologue that everyone coming into the world has something of the ‘true light, which enlightens everyone…’ John 1:9.

In Paul’s letters to be united with Christ is to enter into the sphere of the Spiritual. 1 Cor 6:17. ‘But anyone united to the Lord becomes one Spirit with him.’ In Paul’s writings the idea of Spirituality is not opposed to or contrasted with the physical or material world, as he recognises that there can be flaws in our spiritual lives just as much as in our physical lives or in our use of material things. The Spiritual person is not someone who turns away from material or physical things, but someone within whom the spirit of God lives, and dare I add is alive and well.

In fact it wasn’t until the 12th Century that Christian people once again began to make a distinction between the Spirit which equalled goodness and the material or physical which was not considered good, although the Manichean heresy had held this belief for many centuries before Christ and continued to hold the notion for many more centuries. It was only in the 17th Century in France that the term began to be used in a positive way to describe a personal, affective (i.e. loving) relationship with God.

Various different words began to be used to describe this state, such as ‘devotion’, used by the English mystic William Law & ‘perfection’ used by John Wesley and the early Methodists, while the Evangelicals preferred the word, ‘Piety.’ And many of the mainstream churches became rather suspicious of the term Spirituality, as I think many remain so today!

So it was mainly used in the 19th Century by those outside of any of the mainstream churches, and has sadly led to many people today still seeking beyond the church for a type of spirituality which is rich and full of insight; a treasure which lies hidden and secret within the church of God. In my work of teaching Spirituality so very often people have asked me why on earth we do not hear any of this from our parishes, while those who do not consider themselves members of a church welcome this kind of teaching with open arms.

As a term it has really only become popular during the present century, as people wished to distinguish between the ordinary and the extraordinary between theology, and the experience of prayer, and the experience of the nearness of God. It was possibly used because it describes a more fully rounded and comprehensive way of talking about the Spiritual life, or Christian living in all its variety, vitality and richness.

My own personal definition derives from the scriptural term, Spirit, which in the original Hebrew has several meanings, Ruah meaning Spirit, Breath, and wind; that which animates and gives life to something, so my personal definition would go like this, Spirituality concerns the life enhancing love-relationship with the Living God, which animates our beings, bringing our religious faith and practice to life, and fitting us to face the vagaries of life. It awakens our capacity to savour everything with which the Lord has endowed us as individual human beings who live in community, or alone, who face all the complexity of our lives together with the beauty or the ugliness that surrounds us.

I am a Franciscan nun, so I am slightly biased as the writings of the mystics and of Francis and Clare of Assisi have always interested me. Francis had an unusual way of Reading Scripture. Each morning during his time of prayer, he would lift the Book of the Bible, and let it fall open at random. Then he would read the page wherever it opened and whatever text lifted off the page and caught his attention, he would take as what the Lord wished to say to him for that day, and for that day the text would provide the atmosphere for whatever he wanted to undertake.

Some texts like the one to go out and spread the good news of the Gospel and to rest very lightly on material things, Luke 10: 1-11 lasted for the whole of his life, and he built it into his life style. For Francis and Clare it was the music behind the words of Scripture that moved them most, even though their writings are shot through with Scriptural references. In fact what Clare and Francis taught was that each one of us is called to live every moment of our lives steeped in the presence of the Living God. They taught that there was no human activity separate from the presence of the living God. Hence my own personal definition of Spirituality, as being not only life enhancing, but also covering every aspect of the day from getting up in the morning, cleaning ones teeth, to preparing for bed, cleaning one’s teeth & going to bed at night, and covering us even while we sleep.

The Celtic Christians took this idea very seriously. Just as the earliest disciples lived alongside, and walked and learned, and talked with Jesus day in and day out that’s how the Celtic Christians and Francis and Clare saw our everyday Christian life. That’s why Francis opened the Bible the way he did, wishing to come as close as possible to his teacher, Christ.

However the Celtic Christians add another important dimension, Trinity. They saw our dangerous and worrying world and certainly ourselves as being in need of being held within the Trinity. Not outside of God but right inside, utterly surrounded by God. At times their writings almost suggest that not only does God’s presence surround us, but He weaves His presence amongst us, and also rather like a trampoline lies beneath our feet supporting us.(See Psalm 139.) If only we would let go and let God be who God wishes to be for us. They saw Trinity as a safe place full of light where we can feel so safe that we dare to be our best selves.

The journey of the Spiritual life; and it is necessarily a journey that continually develops and changes over the months and years, is not just something for a holy half hour here or there, or some kind of esoteric adventure but a journey that will affect us day in and day out. And the vast array of Spiritual writings down through the centuries is available to feed our need and assist us in our search to become more fully human for we have a wonderful inbuilt capacity for rapture, if we just give ourselves a chance.

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War, Peace and Truth

Bp-Jana-Jeruma-GinbergaJāna Jēruma-Grīnberga

It is perfectly possible that – as you read this – the situation in the Ukraine will be very different to the one in which this post is written. Prime Minister Harold Wilson is supposed to have observed that a week is a long time in politics. If that was true in the 1970’s, it is even more true in the 2010’s, when geo-political realities are overturned in weeks, and when 24-hour rolling ‘news’ coverage both reflects and drives rapid changes in our knowledge and understanding of events, both important and deeply trivial. As William Gay expresses it in his poetic Advent hymn:

[T]he verities we knew seem shaken and untrue.
When race and class cry out for treason,
When sirens call for war,
They overshout the voice of reason
And scream till we ignore
All we held dear before.”

With that caveat expressed, some thoughts about the war in eastern Ukraine, and how that has affected those of us living under its shadow and influence.

For 70 years now, most of Europe has known a period of relative peace and stability, disturbed by occasional (sometimes astonishingly brutal) conflicts, as in the Balkans in the 1990’s. Even the breakup of the USSR, and the shattering of the Iron Curtain, were mostly peaceful processes. Most of us have lived in conditions of more or less stable government, with more or less continuous growth in prosperity, increased life expectancy and food security.

That now seems threatened on various fronts – migration is challenging our open borders policies, the newly-elected anti-austerity government in Greece has increased the possibility of the breakdown of the eurozone; and in Ukraine, on the borders of NATO and the European Union, a vicious war is being fought. In addition, the Cold War Mark II is picking up strength, and notions like ‘hybrid warfare’ are entering our vocabulary.1

For people living in Latvia, these are unsettling times. It is not so very long since the country gained its independence from the Soviet Union; memories of long years of oppression have not faded from the minds of those over 30 years of age, who remember what it was like when the churches here were closed, or – as in the case of the Anglican Church in Rīga – used for entirely inappropriate purposes. St Saviour’s building was a Social Club for students at the Rīga Polytechnic Institute; and the lovely Methodist Church here was used for boxing matches.

There are two aspects of the current situation in particular which are interesting from a theological and ecclesiological point of view, and which will surely bear more objective analysis, probably from a safe distance of time and place.

Firstly, to use another political cliché, in war truth is the first casualty. This is even more true in the situation of hybrid war, where deliberate manipulation of thought processes forms an essential part of the tactics employed. According to Marcin Zaborowski, Director of the Polish Institute of International Affairs, „I think the Russians have been very smart. Frankly, I think they have outsmarted us.
They use commandoes and they pretend they are not Russian. In terms of information warfare, they have been extremely good. You know, we have here a debate in the West: Provocative, not provocative; presence here, presence there. The Russians have Russia Today, which responds to Putin’s orders, having one message, and it reverberates.”2 As further proof, it has recently been ackowledged by the Russian government that their previous denials of Russian involvement in the Crimea were false. According to Reuters: „In the months since, Putin has adjusted his account of what happened. He initially denied Russian troops were providing security for the referendum, but later acknowledged special forces had been deployed.Russian soldiers who took part have been given state medals with the citation ‘For returning Crimea’, which give the starting date of the operation as Feb. 20, before Yanukovich was ousted.”3

How is the church to react to this? Can we respond with Pilate – „what is truth?”, on the assumption that we cannot hope to find an objective truth in a situation of conflict? How do we defend the whole notion of truth telling, of not bearing false witness, in a situation where deliberate manipulation of facts, as well as outright lies, have become common currency (note that Zaborowski regards Russian behaviour as being ‘smart’)? Of course, in this world of smoke and mirrors, of cyberwarfare and internet trolling, it is actually difficult to keep any overview of where the truth actually lies in a very complex situation. However, Jesus says „to those Jews who had believed Him, “If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”” (John 8:31f, NIV). Clearly, then, the association between acceptance of God’s word as our true pattern of faith and life, sustaining us in our discipleship, and the liberating effect of a knowledge of truth, sourced in God’s word, is of fundamental importance. Conversely, accepting falsehood and lies as a legitimate tool of warfare, and a ‘smart’ thing to do, surely undermines the basis of our faith. The Church, the Body of Christ (whatever particular extremity we might belong to, and in whichever country we happen to be) is called to hold up a mirror to the behaviour of those in government and in positions of responsibility, and to call them out for being dishonest and untruthful. We are called to speak truth to power; and if we don’t, we may find ourselves echoing the Council of the Protestant Church in Germany in the words of the Stuttgart Declaration of Guilt on October 19, 1945: „With great pain we say: By us infinite wrong was brought over many peoples and countries. That which we often testified to in our communities, we express now in the name of the whole Church: We did fight for long years in the name of Jesus Christ against the mentality that found its awful expression in the National Socialist regime of violence; but we accuse ourselves for not standing to our beliefs more courageously, for not praying more faithfully, for not believing more joyously, and for not loving more ardently.”4

Where, ultimately, do we find security in these troubled and troubling times? Here in the Baltic States much air-time and press space is taken up with discussions of the future, and fears of possible Russian intervention. Since I began this article, Boris Nemtsov, the former Russian Deputy Prime Minister and vocal oppositionista, has been murdered; and NATO heavy artillery has begun to arrive in Latvia – both of these events occasioning social media storms. At times, it really does seem as though the voice of reason is being ‘overshouted’, and that our assumed verities are being shaken, and indeed demolished. It is only natural that we should feel that we stand on quaking ground. Here again, the Church Universal has a role to play. In the words of another hymn, „On Christ, the solid rock, I stand; all other ground is sinking sand”. A strong faith in the love, grace and guidance of God will not take away the quakiness of the ground around us; but it will give us a solid place to be, one where we may be able to defend our calling courageously, believe joyously and love ardently, knowing ourselves to be ultimately held safe in God’s hands.

+Jana Jeruma-Grinberga
Riga, March 2015

[1] retrieved 12/3/2015
[2], accessed 18 February 2015.
[3], accessed 12 March 2015
[4] – accessed 12 March 2015

Bishop Jāna Jēruma-Grīnberga was born in London to Latvian parents. She studied biochemistry at University College London and trained to become a nurse before feeling called to the priesthood, studying at North Thames Ministerial Training Course at Oak Hill Theological College and being ordained in 1997. She was Bishop of the Lutheran Church in Great Britain from 2009-13,  has also been a Trustee of the Council of Lutheran Churches,  one of the six Presidents of Churches Together in England, and Co-Moderator of the Anglican Lutheran Society together with Bishop Rupert Hoare. Since November 2014 she has been Chaplain at St Saviour’s in Rīga.

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